Arts Desk

Imagining Madoff Will Open Theater J’s 2011-2012 Season

Deb Margolin

Deb Margolin's Imagining Madoff, as you probably remember, never opened the 2010-2011 season of Theater J as originally intended. The play—a freewheeling inquiry into the mind and morality of Bernard Madoff that invented a booze-soaked encounter between the disgraced financier and the humanitarian icon Elie Wiesel—was derailed after Wiesel threatened legal action against the theater, taking exception to his depiction and calling the play "obscene" and "defamatory."

You won't see Elie Wiesel on Theater J's stage this fall. That version of the play is dead.

But you will see Imagining Madoff, albeit one which has replaced the fictionalized Wiesel with a wholly fictional poet and scholar named Solomon Galkin, and which has evolved in other ways, too. The play opens Theater J's 2011-2012 season on Aug. 31 and runs through Sept. 25 in a production directed by Alexandra Aron and starring Rick Foucheux as Madoff and Mike Nussbaum as Galkin. The play's third character, Madoff's secretary, hasn't been cast yet.

"Deb and I had a series of movements toward rapprochement, which have required a long and difficult and ultimately successful series of conversations," says Ari Roth, Theater J's artistic director.

Although Margolin and Roth began discussing the revival of their collaboration last fall, plans didn't firm up until January, and weren't finalized until this week. "Of course, we went through some very rough waters, Ari and I," says Margolin. "I really feel like this is a play of the moment. I feel it’s both timeless and time sensitive—it’s both. So we’ve been working hard toward coming back together."

The news follows a year-long saga. Theater J announced its production of Imagining Madoff last spring, and Margolin sent a letter and a copy of her script to Wiesel in March. On April 29, Wiesel FedExed his controversy-igniting response. Rather than testing Wiesel's legal resources, Roth and Margolin decided to work on a Wiesel-less rewrite. But when Roth offered to show the new draft to Wiesel's foundation to prove it contained no legally actionable material, Margolin pulled her play, objecting to what looked too much like giving a third party a veto. Still, Roth retained hope. He told City Paper at the time: "I will produce that play in September 2011 and open the season with it. Provided we do not get sued."

At the end of last summer, the revised play had its premiere in the venue originally tapped for a "pre-premiere": Stageworks/Hudson in Hudson, N.Y. We reviewed it. So did some other places. "That was a really gorgeous working experience," says Margolin.

Ari Roth (photo by Darrow Montgomery)

Last July, Roth told The New York Times that a Theater J production of Imagining Madoff was "indefinitely postponed." He saw the play during its Hudson run. He called Margolin and told her he wanted to produce the play, and the two later met up at a theater conference in Chicago, where they were speaking as part of the same panel. In December, Theater J presented a reading of Margolin's play Three Seconds in the Key at the Lincoln Theatre. At the time, Roth told The Washington Post: "All signs are pointing toward a successful collaboration."

Then, in January, Roth and Margolin met at New Dramatists in New York City to discuss possible revisions; Roth had some suggestions, while Margolin says she was confident in the play's state, which had evolved only slightly since the Hudson staging. They held an impromptu reading, with Roth playing Galkin and Margolin playing Madoff and his secretary.

"It was almost the meeting where we decided it didn’t work," says Roth. They discussed further rewrites, but Margolin "was not buying into any of my questions," Roth says. "It was not a good playwright/producer-dramaturg session."

They finished one read-through, and decided to give it another try, Roth says.  "Deb’s a very performative author. She got up and she was inhabiting Madoff’s braggadocio, and I was being very demonstrative as this magnanimous Jewish poet-scholar. I was standing up, and she was standing up, and we began to yell at each other in character, and at a certain point we were hurling the language back at each other. After we got through eight or 10 passages, the play was able to support this intense passion...the play was being done fluently and we had a great intensity about what was going on between us, and 90 minutes later, we just sat down and said, 'We're gonna do the play.'"

They decided the text would stick, at least until rehearsals. At the end of the reading, Margolin says, "[Roth] had come to see that the play had wings."

The play, Margolin says, has proven to have "an unbelievable prescience." Madoff's son, Mark, hanged himself in December; Imagining Madoff culminates with the title character distraught over the Abraham and Isaac myth, in which God instructs a father to kill his son. Also in the play, Galkin has a lengthy monologue about the New York Mets; it now turns out that Madoff was deeply involved in the team's finances. "So many of the things that were present in this play have come to pass," says Margolin.

Asked how she likes the current version of Imagining Madoff compared to its earlier iteration, Margolin says: "I feel like the full fictional sails were allowed to take all the wind into them. All the characters were fictional from the beginning, but there’s a greater freedom that comes now from the only recognizable name being that of Bernard Madoff. He remains a fiction to himself. I like the play more now."

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