Ari Roth was at home washing dishes when his season began to unravel.
It was around 10:30 a.m. on April 29 when the artistic director of Theater J, the in-house theater company of the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, received a call from Deb Margolin, the New York-based playwright whose Imagining Madoff was to kick off the troupe’s 2010-2011 season. The work would make its world premiere at the once-obscure D.C. stage that Roth had made famous for envelope-pushing work. Imagining Madoff was no exception: The play in large part consisted of a fictional dialogue between Bernie Madoff, the financial criminal who concocted the largest Ponzi scheme in history, and Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, literary figure, and icon of Jewish humanitarianism. “A work of the imagination,” Roth called it.
Wiesel, though, was in no mood for works of imagination. In a letter FedExed to the playwright, he called Imagining Madoff “obscene” and “defamatory” and promised that his lawyers would make sure it never reached the stage, the Washington Post reported last week. “Nothing of me is in your script,” Wiesel thundered.
By around 11 a.m. that Thursday, Roth was at the J, reading a copy of the same letter that Wiesel had CCed to him. “He’s had in our minds an overreaction,” Roth said late last week. But though he had earned a reputation for championing writers in the face of establishmentarian condemnation, Roth decided not to go to the barricades this time. At around 11:15 a.m., he told JCC Chief Executive Officer Arna Meyer Mickelson that “he didn’t see how he could go forward with the play,” according to Joshua Ford, the JCC’s chief program officer. Instead, he asked Margolin to rewrite the play, sans Wiesel.
Margolin, at first, agreed. She began conceiving a character to replace Wiesel’s—one that would pack the same metaphorical punch when put on stage next to America’s most notorious financial criminal. What emerged was a Long Island rabbi named Solomon Galkin. In a casting notice, the description of the Galkin character hews pretty closely to the public image of the man who wrote Night: “Novelist, holocaust survivor, humanitarian, professor, lifelong witness.” (The original draft’s casting description shorthanded Wiesel thusly: “80 years old, holocaust survivor, human rights activist, professor, lifelong witness.”)
As Margolin revised, Roth traded several communiqués with the Elie Wiesel Foundation. Back in March, he and Margolin had contacted the humanitarian organization to give them a heads-up about the play, with Margolin penning what Roth calls a “deeply reverential” letter. Roth says that Leslie Meyers, the foundation’s program coordinator, even shared the thoughts of Wiesel’s wife, who “found it an interesting play.” (Meyers said she could not recall that conversation.)
But now, with Wiesel furious about the results, Roth was offering to share Margolin’s eventual draft with the foundation to show that it contained nothing legally actionable.
To Margolin, this sounded too much like giving Wiesel a veto. “At a certain point, you say, you honor someone’s wishes, but it also gets into artistic freedom. Which it seems to me that he, of all people, should support,” says Morgan Jenness, Margolin’s agent.
Margolin walked. And in some eyes, she took a chunk of Theater J’s daring reputation with her.