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.”