The new script for Imagining Madoff has many of the things that were present the first time Theater J planned its staging. Talmudic excerpts. Meditations on the New York Mets. Lapidary dialogue verging on poetry. And a hauntingly wrought Madoff character, a notorious but little-known villain through whom playwright Deb Margolin delivers a portrait of un-self-conscious greed.
What the new script doesn’t have, of course, is Elie Wiesel, who served in the original play as Madoff’s interlocutor and ethical foil over the course of a Scotch-fueled all-nighter. Theater J drew fire last May for capitulating to Wiesel’s legal strong-arming tactics. (Wiesel wrote a letter calling the play “obscene” and “defamatory” after Margolin sent him a script.) As Washington City Paper reported at the time, a series of fitful negotiations ensued, with Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth urging Margolin to write Wiesel out of the script. Margolin balked when it looked as though Wiesel’s team would have veto power over the new text.
So Imagining Madoff disappeared from Theater J’s 2010-2011 bill, opening instead at Stageworks/Hudson in Hudson, N.Y. That show substituted Solomon Galkin, a distinguished Jewish poet and translator, for the Wiesel character. Galkin, like Wiesel, is a survivor of and lifelong witness to the Holocaust.
Now, Theater J has reached agreement with Margolin to produce a version of the play. Here’s a look at some of the important changes to the text, which still offers a radical close reading of an underexamined villain. (As well as a new ending for which we decline to offer a spoiler.)
BEING SOL GALKIN
When Madoff first explains his relationship with Galkin, Margolin adds some important lines that 1) anticipate Galkin’s avuncular addresses; and 2) establish Galkin as a fictional character in his own right, not a mere cipher for the excised Wiesel.
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. I was managing his foundation then, but I’d refused to take his personal stuff. That came later. Listening to this man, it’s like having a glass to your ear and putting it against the wall of history! J’you ever do that as a kid, eavesdrop by putting a glass against the wall? Magnifies everything!
BERNIE: I met with Galkin once, just once, for a long discussion. It was after a benefit for his synagogue, he was the Treasurer there, a lot of famous people there. A lot of people on that circuit knew him, they were a literary crowd. Books, all the time, the flowery books. Rich people talking about books. He wrote poetry that people actually seemed to read, who the hell has time for poetry? It’s too specific, tiny little details, most of the time it makes no sense.
Margolin has now included several passages from Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
SOL: Ah, Bernie! Of course you notice! Amichai writes:
Soon you will again wear your harnesses, Beautiful and embroidered, to hold Sheer stockings: you Mare and harnesser in one body.
BACK IN BUSINESS
In keeping with her fuller, freer, fully fictional rendering of Galkin, Margolin has given him a bad back—and a sense of humor about it.
BERNIE: Why are you bent over like that, Solomon? I never noticed that, it looks terrible.
SOL: Bernard, you’re kind, you haven’t mentioned my bad posture up til now! It’s arthritis of the spine. Someone who doesn’t like me recently wrote that my poems are stooped the same way I am! It was funny, it made me laugh!
ABRAHAM AND ISAAC
The play’s climax, as before, comes in the waning hours of the Madoff/Galkin all-nighter. While Madoff tries to work himself up to a confession, he and Galkin discuss the story of Abraham and Isaac. Comparatively minor tweaks conspire to give that story and the Talmudic commentaries on it a still more devastating treatment.
SOL: What did Satan do? He said to Abraham, “This is what I heard from behind the [heavenly] curtain: ‘A lamb will be the burnt offering—Isaac is not to be the burnt offering.’” But such is the punishment of a liar—even when he tells the truth, no one listens. Isn’t that brilliant, Bernard?