When Circus Amok founder Jennifer Miller asked playwright/actor Deb Margolin of Montvale to write some monologues for a vaudeville-style piece she was creating about Bernie Madoff, Margolin did not bother doing biographical research. The truth she was looking for was not going to be found on Wikipedia. Instead, she began to imagine who Madoff really was. “I advise my students to listen for the voice of the character,” Margolin said in an interview with the Jewish Standard recently.
At the time, Madoff was under house arrest for carrying out the greatest Ponzi scheme ever. A major macher in the organized Jewish community, he was revered as a brilliant money manager until many organizations and individual investors discovered that their gains were illusory. Madoff pleaded guilty to fraud and is serving a 150-year sentence in federal prison.
The success of Circus Amok’s “Cracked Ice” whetted Margolin’s appetite for a deeper investigation of Madoff. “What would my inner architecture need to be” to betray so many friends and colleagues, she asked herself. Margolin’s answer to that question was her play “Imagining Madoff,” now being presented by the Garage Theater Group at the Becton Theatre at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck.
|Deb Margolin tries ‘to listen for the voice of character.’|
“Imagining Madoff” is different from Margolin’s previous efforts, which include such works as “Three Seconds in the Key” and “Rock, Scissors, Paper.” For one thing, “most of my plays have not been about men,” she said, and much of her work has been solo performance. Although she wrote the play before the many revelations about Madoff’s doings, “Imagining Madoff” presaged many details that were divulged later.
Margolin doubts that Madoff initially intended to defraud his investors. When things went wrong, he could not acknowledge his failure, she believes. The fact that no one caught him for thirty-odd years proves that many Americans are willing not to ask questions about the numbers. “Everyone said the math doesn’t add up,” she pointed out, yet people kept investing. They had faith in Bernie’s brilliance, and faith preempts the need to dig. “With faith, you don’t have to work,” Margolin said. “That’s what this play is investigating.”
“Imagining Madoff” became embroiled in a controversy before it ever appeared on a stage. An accomplished monologist, Margolin wrote the play as a series of monologues between different characters. One of those characters originally was Elie Wiesel, who has acknowledged that he and his foundation lost millions in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. As a courtesy, Margolin sent the script to Wiesel before the play was scheduled to be produced at Theater J in Washington, D.C. To her surprise, Wiesel was furious at her depiction, described the play as obscene and defamatory, and threatened to take legal action. Theater J quickly apologized to the Wiesel Foundation and bowed out of the production after Margolin refused to let the foundation have final approval after a year’s moratorium.
Margolin changed the name of the character to Solomon Galkin, a Holocaust survivor, translator, and poet. “It was a very fast edit. [The character] stood in for the great moral Jew of our time,” she said. “He was fictional to begin with.” “Imagining Madoff” was initially produced at Stageworks/Hudson, and eventually at Theater J. “The play went on with its life,” Margolin said. Although the experience was distressing, Margolin remains a fan of Theater J and its artistic director, Ari Roth. “I’m glad he and I were able to come together. That theater is alive with important debates about the cultural moment.”
Margolin grew up in Westchester County. She went to college at NYU, where her father was a professor, and she is now a professor in Yale’s undergraduate theater studies program. She feels glad to be able to share her play with her own community, she said, and there has been a reading at her Congregation Temple Beth Sholom in Park Ridge.
“We don’t like being reminded of our mistakes,” Margolin said when asked about Wiesel’s motivations. In that, he shared something with Madoff, who in her view also could not deal with his financial errors. “When all is said and done, Bernie Madoff and Elie Wiesel are just men,” Margolin said. “That’s the beauty of theater, that it can investigate these depths.”