[Ed. note: Thanks to the legal team of Elie Wiesel, our critic was unable to attend Imagining Madoff on 16th street as previously planned. Instead, he had to hoof it to Hudson, N.Y.]
Deb Margolin‘s button-pushing character study of Bernie Madoff never got a chance to open Theater J’s 2010-11 season, but a modified version of the play is enjoying a short but well-attended run at Stageworks/Hudson. It’s a smaller pond, but the show’s making a splash, and the distinctly goyish audience is responding warmly.
Margolin, a Manhattan-based playwright whose work has appeared at Theater J in the past, was forced to reframe her play after Elie Wiesel—Madoff’s foil in the original version—threatened legal action. (He called the piece “obscene” and “defamatory,” and Theater J didn’t see fit to challenge him.) In the new version, Wiesel is replaced by the kind-hearted and occasionally doddering Rabbi* Solomon Galkin, a fictional character who shares certain aspects of Wiesel’s resumé (Holocaust survivor; poet; depositor of funds in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme). In an interview with City Paper back in May, Stageworks/Artistic Director Laura Margolis expressed the opinion that this compelled substitution “might, in fact, make [the play] stronger.”
Welll…hard to say, really, seeing as the original Madoff existed only in two dimensions (a 45-page script; an angry letter from Wiesel; the May 30 edition of this paper). The success of the Hudson production is squarely, at times exclusively, in the hands of Mark Margolis (no relation to Laura), who plays the title role with such loathsome charm and Dickensian detail that you almost wish he had the stage to himself. As Madoff’s secretary, Robin Leslie Brown makes a one-sided, subpoenaed appearance before the Securities and Exchange Commission not merely believable (it’s an awkward conceit) but also funny.
The current version hews more or less to Margolin’s original structure: a series of near-liturgical theme-and-variation monologues—some ribald, some metaphysical, some more coherent than others. Its weaknesses are its length—a loose 90 minutes—and the Galkin character, a diluted rendering of the moral force represented more aggressively, in the first version, by Wiesel. Where in the original script Wiesel was an eloquent symbol, Galkin is something closer to caricature: a near-buffoonish Howard Green who overquotes the Talmud and whose delivery throughout is one sustained shrug. Margolin has also added a kiss-off line, in which Galkin renders the final word on Madoff’s immortal soul that tends (I think) to cheapen the more heartfelt moment that precedes it.
But? This play could look a great deal different if and when it comes to D.C. (Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director, is on record with the following: “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.” He’s since said a Theater J production is on “indefinite hiatus.”) In the meantime (or rather, for the next six days), our many readers in the southern Catskills get to enjoy a three-dimensional Madoff—-and a two-dimensional Galkin who bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Nobel laureate.
*An earlier version of this post referred to Solomon Galkin as a rabbi. The character is not a rabbi, but rather a poet and translator and the treasurer of a synagogue.