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.
BERNIE: I met with Wiesel once, just once, for a long discussion. And I thought we were going to talk exclusively about the fund, but he wanted to talk Talmud, or Midrash, or whatever it was, so I listened. He said we’re both teachers, that’s what he said. —p. 10
Imagining Madoff has only three characters: Bernie Madoff, Elie Wiesel, and Madoff’s personal secretary (“42 or so, sincere, hard-working, pleasant-looking, dutiful, bloated with remorse”). The action triangulates between the witness stand, where the secretary answers unheard questions before the Securities and Exchange Commission; Madoff’s prison cell, where he reconstructs his crimes without apology for an unseen biographer; and Wiesel’s study, where the two men share a scotch-fueled all-nighter.
In the ill-fated letter to Wiesel, Margolin explained her inspiration for Imagining Madoff: “When I don’t understand someone, I write them a monologue.”
“I thought I should be able to look to my own humanity for what went wrong in Madoff,” she says.
Margolin, who has never heard Wiesel speak, then conceived a more cohesive piece, in which Madoff and Wiesel serve as allegorical foils, with the secretary as the chorus, the audience’s onstage representative: ashamed she never figured out what was going on, unwillingly complicit, endlessly regretful.
Playwrights who dramatize public figures often steep themselves in press clippings on their subjects. Margolin took a more liberated approach, confining her research to Judaic texts. The resulting characters exist apart from their real-world analogs, speak their own language, and stand at once as symbols and engaging men. Wiesel, especially, is more a signifier than a character—“an easily identifiable crystallization of that type of moral force,” as Jenness puts it. A handy individual, in other words, for addressing the moral and theological questions of the play, and benevolent enough to evince a sympathetic side in his opposite, the Madoff figure.
“The play came to me sideways,” Margolin says. “I dropped into the mind and body of Bernie Madoff and listened. I just sit by the keyboard and listen to someone speak. If you’re going to be an actor or playwright, you have to go into the mind and body of someone, however different from you—and that is profoundly reclamatory and healing.”
ELIE: Bernie, you know best, but help them. Help me. I want you to manage me personally.
BERNIE: I’m sure you’re safe where you are, Elie... It’s enough I have the foundation.
ELIE: How can you resist me, Bernie?
BERNIE: I can’t, no one can resist you.
Elie Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, less than four months after having been relocated from Auschwitz, where he was inmate A-7713. He went on to write over 50 books and to win the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.
Wiesel was also a victim of Madoff’s Ponzi racket. Like many who were burned by Madoff, Wiesel was elderly, Jewish, and trusting. (“People expect others to be like themselves,” Margolin says. “Pickpockets have their hands on their wallets all the time. Generous people anticipate generosity.”)
But the million-plus of Wiesel’s own money that Madoff liquidated is small change compared with over $15 million that Madoff filched from the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. (Mission: “To combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice.”). In an interview with the New York Times, two months after the FBI arrested Madoff, Wiesel called his former asset manager a “sociopath,” “psycopath,” and “scoundrel,” among other epithets.“I would like him to be in a solitary cell with only a screen,” Wiesel told the Times, “and on that screen for at least five years of his life, every day and every night, there should be pictures of his victims, one after the other after the other, all the time a voice saying, ‘Look what you have done to this old lady, look what you have done to that child, look what you have done,’ nothing else.” (These words appear in Margolin’s script, with instructions to project them above the actors right before curtain.)
Stealing money from Elie Wiesel, especially if you’re a Jew, is grotesque. But is it equally revolting to appropriate Wiesel’s literary likeness? It remains unclear just what Wiesel found “obscene” and “defamatory”—the two words that recur in his letter to Margolin and Theater J—in Imagining Madoff. (Wiesel did not return calls for comment.)
“[Deb] chose Elie Wiesel as the most moral man one could imagine” Jenness says. “So it was a little odd to have his reaction, quite frankly.”
Margolin herself was baffled. For one, she maintains that the play is a fully realized work of fiction (Roth has called it a “counter-factual counter-narrative”). She says the character bearing Wiesel’s name is less a representation of the man than a quasi-allegorical distillation of his namesake’s gravitas, a righteous foil for the ratlike Madoff.
“It’s not a New York Times article,” Margolin insists. “It’s not biography or documentary. I used that name because it stood for a certain Jewish morality.”
In the March letter to Wiesel, Margolin made this point rather explicitly. “I explained that I had written this play and explained what the character bearing his name metaphorically, not biographically, was doing in the play—as the opposite end of the spectrum from a man of such depraved indifference as Bernie Madoff,” Margolin says.
Certainly the play touched on a subject of great pain for Wiesel, a fact both Roth and Margolin are quick to note. “This decent, decent man trusted this other man, maybe partly because they shared a culture,” Margolin says. “And after being betrayed so badly in the Holocaust by people who wanted to annihilate this culture, here he was so badly, badly abused by this person from within.”
A recurring element in the play is Wiesel’s insistence that Madoff handle his personal assets as well as those of the foundation; by play’s end, Madoff has yet to agree, a poignant ellipsis that mirrors Madoff’s desire and inability to confess his sins to Wiesel.
Which explains Wiesel’s sensitivity—but not his allegations of defamation. Was he concerned that audiences would take the play at its word, assume that he was on intimate terms with Madoff? Would the foundation’s donors take this as a sign of Wiesel’s complicity in Madoff’s plot? Either possibility is hard to imagine. The play’s title is a pretty clear indicator that the action takes place in the realm of the hypothetical.
Obscene, though, is easier to pinpoint, if you imagine yourself an 81-year-old with a taste for moral pronouncements and lips that purse easily. The Wiesel character says “fuck” and “shit,” once apiece. He drinks scotch liberally and prevails on Madoff to keep up with him. (“They’re on their fourth drink by the time the play ends,” Margolin notes.) He compares the color of scotch to that of “piss that has blood mixed in it.” He speaks earthily about the diversity of Israel—“There are black people, Bernie, blonde girls, fat ladies, heroin addicts that hang around the laundromats, cab drivers, all of them Jews!”
Madoff, in his prison-scene monologues, is profane in the Al Pacino vein, especially in discussing the procreation of fish. He recounts a dream in which his penis was a vagina (“...and it was a vagina that had folds, really, it looked like a wallet”). In an especially arresting moment, Madoff remembers Wiesel teaching him to lay t’fillin, the sacred Torah containers strapped by the observant to their various extremities; Madoff discusses the experience in terms of sexual bondage. (“He seemed like a lover who wanted to touch me in that way, who wanted to tie me to the bedpost, to dominate me.”) Elsewhere, the financier takes evident delight in lesbian jokes. (“How many lesbians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” “One! And it’s not funny!” No, it isn’t.)
One of his first lines is a similar joke about the Jews, the punchline to which we don’t get until the end of the play; Wiesel delivers it, and it’s “six million and one.”
BERNIE:I wanted to tell Wiesel. Of all people! Wiesel, on that night, I wanted to tell! ... I wanted to say: Wake up, asshole! Wake up! I can’t stand that shit! It’s a danger to the world, that picture, that idea of moral men! —p. 32
Roth, even after the cancellation, still talks like a guy who’s willing to brawl in the name of defending creative freedom. “We’re up for a good fight, man,” he says. He should know: Under his guidance, Theater J has held readings of controversial plays that have taken sharply critical stances towards Israel—irking many of the JCC’s members.
Several years ago, it staged a private reading of My Name is Rachel Corrie, about an American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip. The New York Theater Workshop had previously cancelled the play in the face of criticism; Roth thought it worthy of consideration but then found it to be a mediocre work. Theater J later revisited the subject with a Fringe Festival monologue about the controversy. And, last March, it held a public reading of English playwright Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children (along with a companion piece, Seven Palestinian Children, by Margolin). Some critics denounced Seven Jewish Children as anti-Semitic—a denunciation that left Roth undeterred.
“People feel like this last year’s been a humdinger,” says Roth. “The last year has increased the ways in which Theater J is discussed in the community… We’ve heard more from the community in the last year, and the JCC has heard more, than at any point in my tenure.” That’d be 13 years.
Initially, it looked like Imagining Madoff would carry on in that tradition. The theater greenlit the play after what Roth describes as a “relevatory” reading last December. Theater J commissoned promotional artwork for Imagining Madoff by the artist David Polonsky, chief animator of the art-house hit Waltz with Bashir. Polonsky originally drew a poster featuring both Madoff and Wiesel; in a later version he removed Wiesel.
So why did Roth decide to duck a fight this time? Interviews with Roth, members of Theater J’s governing council, and top JCC administrators suggest that he never even considered attempting to go forward with the original version once Wiesel raised objections. “Wiesel is part of the family,” he says, referring to Wiesel’s symbolic relationship with Jewish artists and the Jewish community. That could apply to Roth’s own family, too. His mother, who as a child was hidden from the Nazis during World War II, has been acquainted with Wiesel for half a century; he advises the Holocaust Education Foundation of Chicago, of which she is a founder. And they’re friends: Roth says Wiesel heard him sing Adon Olam in Chicago when he was 12.
But Roth says that the difference also had to do with the aggreived party’s role in the conflict: While the authors of Rachel Corrie and Seven Jewish Children are sharply critical of Israel—and hence invite a reaction from the Jewish state’s defenders—no one involved in Imagining Madoff thinks of Wiesel as a bad guy in the Ponzi schemer’s criminality. (Roth, in fact, says he wanted Wiesel’s blessing; so does Margolin.)
“This play was designed to reconstruct something of Bernie Madoff’s motivations and confer some pathos on Elie Wisesel. But to him it represented—he felt the play was defaming,” says Roth. “That is not a fight we want to have—when you’re looking at that kind of traumatic reaction, that’s not a fight we would want to have.”
All the same, it’s not a fight they necessarily would have lost, either. In fact, Margolin had prepared for a bit of blowback. Some time before she wrote her letter to Wiesel, Margolin also asked a lawyer friend of hers to take a look at Imagining Madoff. In a memo, the New York attorney wrote that Theater J had the right to use Wiesel’s name and likeness in a work of art because he is a public figure. Whether the play was potentially defamatory was a trickier question. Lawrence B. Steinberg, a lawyer practicing entertainment litigation in Los Angeles, says that as long as Imagining Madoff was clearly labeled a work of fiction, a public figure like Wiesel would have a hard time in court. To establish defamation, he’d have to prove malice. But if Wiesel would have difficulty winning a suit, that wouldn’t stop him from bringing one. (After Margolin began revising her play, the JCC’s counsel looked at the proposed name changes and concluded the work would no longer be legally actionable.)
That wasn’t enough for Roth, who felt that the gray areas of the law could land him in court—a place he’d willingly go to defend some sorts of creative freedom, but not the right to offend Elie Wiesel. “It was never Elie Wiesel,” Roth says. “It was a metaphor. But if it’s to be discussed in court, it’s too expensive a conversation. I love that question. I think we should debate it forever—it just requires a leap for the subject being dramatized to accept or tolerate this sympathetic diversion from the truth.”
After Wiesel informed Margolin that he would not give her play his blessing, and Roth and Margolin decided to revise the work, Roth informed Theater J’s governing council. He says there was no dissent. “It was strong, risky writing,” says Stephen Stern, a council member. “I personally like that aesthetic but there are other considerations, even in the world of art. Sometimes, you draw back in terms of other human considerations.” In other words, sometimes you decide you’re not up for a good fight, man.
“I think if it had been somebody else with a lesser name, we would’ve done that,” says Irene Wurtzel, a playwright and a chair of Theater J’s council. “But it just was so significant a character—so significant a name. It was just, ‘let’s not go there.’”
And critics of the decision—in the theater community, everyone’s a critic—think Theater J’s failure to go there is an embarassment. Isaac Butler, a New York-based director and theater blogger who helps helm the influential blog Parabasis, says Roth’s decision to offer the foundation a look at the rewrite was problematic.
“I thought it was cowardly, and I said so at the time,” Butler says. “If Ari Roth and Elie Wiesel are such close friends, why did he threaten to sue them rather than picking up the phone? And when lawsuits were threatened, why didn’t Roth cover his company’s and his playwright’s back? I know he’s [Wiesel’s] friend. But that doesn’t matter. He’s the artistic director of a theater. He has a loyalty to his community, but he also has a loyalty to his artists. And I honestly think he was trying to navigate that relationship and it blew up in his face.”
Of course, Butler—his mother is Susan Butler, chair of Studio Theatre’s board—understands the competing interests Roth faces. “Theater J is a community-based theater,” Butler says. “They have different missions and different responsibilities and work differently from theaters that are independent nonprofits.” All the same, he thinks Roth’s creative side should have won out. “I think as an artist, as a director, the proper response would be, ‘Go fuck yourself, I believe in this play and I’m doing it.’”
Ford, the J’s chief program officer, says the JCC has always given Roth complete freedom—even when he wants to use controversial material.
“He’s an artist with a great deal of influence and sway and we respect that,” Ford says, describing Theater J and the JCC’s relationship as “mutually beneficial.” When the JCC’s board of directors does weigh in on matters related to Theater J, it’s almost always for budgetary reasons, Ford says. Theater J’s annual operating budget is about $1 million, although it doesn’t have to pay rent or utilities.
And for every controversial play it stages, Theater J also produces plenty of crowd-pleasing fare. To wit: Its 2010-2011 season features productions of The Odd Couple and The Chosen. Imagining Madoff will be replaced by Willy Holtzman’s Something You Did.
So it picks its battles. “It’s a question of degree,” says Wurtzel. “And, you know, when you’re a theater and you’re always counting your pennies, who needs a lawsuit? You say, ‘Too bad, but I’ll look for alternatives.’ If you don’t have alternatives, it’s different.”
The actor Rick Foucheux, who would’ve played Madoff in the play (the other roles weren’t cast), says he admired the play but, upon reflection, didn’t think it required the specificity of the tête-a-tête : “As far as I was concerned it didn’t have to be Elie Wiesel and it didn’t have to be Bernie Madoff.”
Asked if Imagining Madoff has been diminished by the removal of Wiesel’s name, Roth says: “Yes, it’ll lose something, but it could gain something.”
BERNIE: I swear to you, I wanted to tell him. I almost did. I came very close. I wanted to tell him, don’t know why. Don’t know why. Wiesel told, something from Midrash or Talmud, something, he told me it said:
ELIE:Life is for planting trees in whose shade you never expect to sit.—p. 16.
You can still see Imagining Madoff, of course. But you’ll have to travel. Auditions are currently underway for the show at Stageworks/Hudson, a 100-seat theater in Hudson, N.Y. The run is slated to start on July 21. Though the Stageworks version will be the Wiesel-free rewrite, there’s a difference. According to Artistic Director Laura Margolis, her company has no plans to run the script past the Wiesel Foundation.
“I feel that this is a play that is Shakespearean in scope,” Margolis says. “Not only is it beautifully poetical, but it speaks to humanity in a way that is ageless. Who would think that you could take a character, Bernard Madoff, who none of us know and none of us will ever be able to delve into the mind of, and actually create a human being that we in some way can understand?”
But for now, seeing a Shakespearean Madoff won’t be an option for D.C. theater-goers. And it’s unclear whether it ever will be. Margolin speaks cautiously about the idea of trying again.
“You know, I like the idea of a Jewish theater. I like the idea of a theater where Jewish issues are discussed, where Jewish drama is alive. Ari has expressed interest in other pieces of my work, and I welcome his interest.”
Roth is slightly less guarded—if not exactly fearless. “This can be an exclusive to the City Paper: I will produce that play in September 2011 and open the season with it. Provided we do not get sued.”