Sunday, January 26, 2014

Muddling Madoff at the New Rep

Joel Colodner and Jeremiah Kissel in Imagining Madoff.  Photo: Andrew Brilliant.

A small shock wave rippled through theatrical circles in 2010, when Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel abruptly rebuked Deb Margolin, a feminist playwright based at Yale, who had written Wiesel into her Imagining Madoff, a meditation on the notorious Ponzi schemer and his (often Jewish) clients. Wiesel himself had lost his life savings to Madoff, as well as some $15 million of his foundation's endowment - which may have suggested Margolin's provocative conceit: a conversation between Jewish fleecer and Jewish lamb (in which the lamb all but begs to be sacrificed).

Well, Elie Wiesel wasn't pleased. In fact he called Margolin's play "obscene" and "defamatory" and threatened to sue, claiming he wanted to block its production "at any time, in any venue." This derailed the play's premiere (at Theatre J in D.C.) - and Margolin immediately responded by changing the name of her "Wiesel" character (but keeping most of his dialogue intact). The cowed Theatre J, however, begged off her revision - sans Wiesel's explicit approval - and Margolin withdrew her script.  

Let's just say no one came off well in that dust-up, and immediately speculations swirled around the affair. It was easy to understand why Wiesel might have been insulted - honestly, could the playwright possibly have expected him to approve her little gambit? But the kerfuffle also stirred up latent doubts about Wiesel's own judgment and character that have long bubbled just off the cultural radar. And many observers noted that all he really managed to do was pull Margolin up onto a larger public stage.

So eventually, of course, the script resurfaced, and was even nominated for a few awards.  And now we can judge the whole scandal for ourselves, as the New Rep has just presented Imagining Madoff in its Black Box Theatre (it closes today, but returns for an encore this summer).

And alas, it turns out that Elie Wiesel was right.  Although not, I admit, for the reasons he cited; Margolin's play is neither obscene nor defamatory (even if Margolin paints her Wiesel factotum as a benignly blind fool).

No, the simple truth is that Imagining Madoff is just a dreadful play - a long-winded, psuedo-intellectual bore that only demonstrates its writer's incompetence. Which to my mind is reason enough to stop its production "at any time, in any venue."

But we've just suffered through it anyhow - so on second thought, I have to admit you might be able to argue that Madoff IS, in its way, naively "obscene," in that it clumsily flirts with something like an addled feminist brand of anti-Semitism.  But before you scream in outrage - I know, I know - how can a Jew be anti-Semitic?  Well - perhaps she can, particularly when she has an axe to grind (or more than one!) regarding the faith of her fathers.

But first - full disclosure: I did fall asleep during this play. So maybe I missed some moment of transcendent genius. I tried to stay awake, really I did; I pinched myself, I bit my finger - but none of my usual tricks worked. To be clear: I was only unconscious for one or two minutes, tops, as I soon pitched forward in my seat (thank God I hit my partner's shoulder).  "Did I miss anything?" I whispered to him as I pulled my wits together.  "Not really," he replied.  I noticed a few minutes later he was dozing, too.

But then it's that kind of play.  Nothing is duller than a lack of dramatic form matched with a lack of dramatic content, and Margolin scores on both counts. Not that she doesn't have "ideas" - she's got all kinds of ideas. Indeed, she clearly thinks she's making some sort of subversive statement on at least three  levels - thus we're simultaneously eavesdropping on Madoff in his jail cell, and on an evening with "Galkin" (the Wiesel factotum), and on Madoff's secretary as she's deposed by law enforcement.

But with all these overlapping time frames, we end up not really anywhere.  And any dramatic arc is completely quashed; one natural plot line, for instance, might have followed Madoff's dawning awareness that Galkin's case for Jewish solidarity was itself his golden opportunity. Or another ploy might have tracked Madoff's flickers of conscience as he moved in for the kill. A smart hack like Peter Shaffer could have easily teased a perversely elegant game of cat-and-mouse from this potent premise.

But Margolin manages zip. Ixnay. Nada. Basically she couldn't playwright her way out of a paper bag. Oh, she gestures toward a through-line every now and then (Madoff does hesitate before relieving Galkin of his personal funds). But she has no idea how to stitch together a context in which these moments could gather some dramatic force.  Thus they float in theatrical space like plot points on flash cards, where they bounce against other random thoughts about Auschwitz, the Talmud, the Torah, and other, you know, patriarchy-Jewish-y stuff. We sense a persistent insinuation that the shared Judaism of these men is somehow at the root of Madoff's scam.  But how?  And why? Margolin can't or won't say. I mean the feminist critique of orthodox Judaism is well-established; and inarguably true.  Orthodox Judaism is sexist.  (Just as orthodox Islam and Christianity are.) And the Old Testament stories are cruel. Only too true. But what has any of that got to do with Bernie Madoff? The final effect is of a half-baked attack - at one remove - on a great tradition that the author doesn't have the intellectual horsepower (or guts) to take on in a fair fight.

It's quite a pathetic performance, really.  And this woman teaches theatre at Yale.  Sheesh.  (I always say, if you want to know why Johnny and Juanita can't playwright, look no further than their faculty.)

Needless to say, the actors are left hanging with no conflicts to sink their teeth into, or even (given all the open-ended talmudic musing) any readily apparent theme.  And Elaine Vaan Hogue's detailed direction doesn't help much - it's all trees with no forest.  So the actors do what they can, the way actors always do. As the secretary, Adrianne Krstansky can at least get away with just looking uncomfortable - whether it's over the script or her character's plight doesn't really matter.  Meanwhile Joel Colodner tries to get a little further with Margolin's mash-up of Buber, Levi and Berlin, but I couldn't say he succeeds.

It's Jeremiah Kissel, however, who fares the worst - I'm a big fan of Kissel, but he's terrible as Madoff. Then again, it's not his fault.  Margolin has called her play Imagining Madoff for a reason - she's not really  interested in the actual Bernie Madoff; she's just going to imagine him as she'd like, to score the points she'd like to make. And Kissel dutifully picks up her cues - he even throws himself into nutty monologues like the one where he dreams of sinking his teeth into a live salmon (I'm not kidding). So his Madoff comes off as a lip-smacking villain - a Snidely Whiplash of the synagogue who all but curls his mustache as he sneers at Galvin's Buber-by-way-of-Streisand bromides. Margolin's Bernie Madoff is e-vil.  EEE-VUHL - got it?

It doesn't matter, I guess, that the actual Madoff was nothing like this - at least on the surface. Indeed, he was by all accounts quite self-contained and distant.  Even his greed was low-key - if you read his biography, you discover a somewhat aimless young man who eventually finds a niche in penny stocks through a sketchy (but legal) kickback scheme. Coding this trick into standardized software was central to the creation of NASDAQ - which Madoff led for a time, thus cementing his reputation as an establishment icon.

No doubt his rise also brought home to him the degree to which the Wall Street machine is a black box - even to those who benefit from it. For he was certainly no financial mastermind - in fact Madoff never studied finance or business (and probably to this day has no expertise in either). He simply knew a few accounting tricks (the back-dated trades that powered his Ponzi scheme were quite transparent) which he slowly engineered - with the help of a loyal inner sanctum and a feeder system of middlemen - into an ever-larger financial illusion.

None of that has anything to do with Judaism, of course. But the quietly avuncular "Bernie" did possess a kind of genius when it came to reading his chosen people. Careful to never advertise (much less engage in a hard sell) Madoff let his connections be his lure; his targets came to him. He meanwhile cultivated the aura of an inscrutable, Oz-like wizard, onto whom the Jewish community projected the character it wanted to see. And with a perverse brilliance, he embedded himself in the world of Jewish philanthropy - as he knew there are few things more seductive than the clubby hand-shake of big charity and big money. Add to this the understandable insularity of a tribe long persecuted for its faith, and you have something like the perfect recipe for an epic swindle. In a way, Bernie Madoff was inevitable.

It's also worth noting, I think, that Madoff could serve as an intriguingly dark parallel to Elie Wiesel, whose own persona has been sculpted (and re-sculpted) to match the expectations of his high-minded public, and who of course is always playing on tribal ideals to ask people to hand over their money (albeit to his foundation, not himself!). If Margolin had confined herself to the ironies of that interaction, or if she understood the rules of the insider culture of her own faith, she might have been in clover.  Indeed, her script does boast one solid moment, when Madoff serves up a vicious - but well-known - anti-Semitic joke. "How many Jews does it take to screw in a  light bulb?" he demands of Galvin, who is a Holocaust survivor. The answer, of course, is "six million - and one."  Coming from a Jew - and delivered to someone who saw Auschwitz - it's both a ruefully hard-boiled crack, and a subtly aimed con.

But oddly, the playwright seems to be hinting that there's something about Jewishness itself, rather than the effects of its persecuted history, at the bottom of Madoff's scam. Margolin makes much, for instance, of the foundational story of Abraham, and his near-sacrifice of son Isaac - but this only ends up a kind of non sequitur - and a vaguely insulting one, at that. Indeed, when Margolin suggests a comparison between Abraham and the Nazis, we can only roll our eyes in stupefied disbelief. (And the Talmud scholar has no answer to that?  Come off it!) Surely Margolin knows that Madoff's own son eventually committed suicide - yet her Madoff never sees an ironic parallel between his own story and Abraham's? Really?

Oh, well. What's saddest about this whole debacle, I think, is that the Madoff story is such a ripe one for dramatization - so Margolin has botched a truly golden opportunity.  And the New Rep has squandered a highly talented cast.  There's even a marvelous set: an arc of Jewish literature fills the Black Box Theatre, carefully constructed by designer Jon Savage.  I'd go back to see his work any day. But I think I'll take a pass on Deb Margolin - forever.


  1. Me thinks the lady dost protest too much! Mr. Garvey, thank you for your kind attention to my play! It obviously made you so furiously angry that you felt the need to insult me every way to Sunday without knowing anything about me, my history in the theater, my ethics, my relationship to Judaism, everything! This play riled you up very badly! If it was merely boring, it would just be easy to say so! It's very interesting the way critics often fail to take into account the history of a woman playwright's work; it's always just as if she showed up with her things in her purse from Greenwich and tried to put on a play! Have you even looked up whether I've ever written a play before? If I've ever stood onstage myself? Do you even care? Taking a pass on my work forever sounds like a great idea for you! Life is short! I wouldn't waste my time on a person who's entire work and history I found worthless, I absolutely wouldn't! As someone who's survived mortal illness, raised two children and lived deeply and passionately with what time I've had, I definitely would not spend a moment with a moronic, anti-Semitic, quasi-intellectual mind such as the one you've attributed to me! But do me a favor: don't talk about teachers in a derogatory way. You betray your ignorance, your willingness to stereotype, and your profound lack of generosity as a thinker when you do so.

    Again, kindest thanks for your attention to my work.

    Deborah Margolin

  2. Just a quick correction about Madoff biting into a live salmon. Here's the text: Madoff, describing the way the movement of money in the world reminded him of the spawning of salmon and his fantasy of reaching into the water to grab one, says of the salmon: "...and now he's on my plate. He's dead. He's dead. He's delicious, and he's dead. And me? I'm wiping my face with one of Ruthie's napkins with the flowers and the linen and him? He's dead." So Mr. Garvey, as for Madoff sinking his teeth into a LIVE salmon ("I'm not kidding"), I guess the word "dead" appearing 4 times in connection with this salmon occurred during one of the two or three minutes during which my play put you to sleep. Someone just told you about it later. You're a terrific reviewer. Me? A playwright trying to investigate the beauty and the danger of absolute faith, either in God, or in men. The one thing I didn't make up is that Elie Wiesel, a public intellectual and power figure, lost all his own money and his foundation's money to Bernard Madoff. He talked about meeting Madoff twice; they discussed ethics and education. And then he gave Madoff all his money.

    Obviously my play upset you. Your need to attack me personally betrays the fact that your review is more about you than me. I've always believed that criticism is a conversation. You've said what you've said, and now I'm saying: look up my work. Don't make general comments about my work in ignorance. And get your facts straight. Look at the script before you swear that I've got the protagonist biting into a live salmon. This play was written in 2009, before Madoff's son's suicide. I consider the inclusion of the Abraham and Isaac story a common playwright's prescience. And let's never spend time in the theater again; I must reiterate what a great idea I think it is for you to pass on my work forever. Since you seem to have no idea that I've ever written another play, or performed onstage, I can say, merely factually, that you don't know what you're missing. I know what I'm missing though: a person who mistakes a violent personal reaction with the justification for an ad hominem attack.

    Again, thank you for your kind attention to my work.

    Deborah Margolin

  3. Ms. Margolin, I don't WANT to know anything about you. Why should your personal history somehow mitigate the poor quality of your play? You have fraudulently taken up a great deal of cultural space that should have gone to someone with real talent; when you bring up your history I can only imagine how many times you've pulled the same trick in the past. I admit that after boring me into sleep, you did in the end rile me up, but that's because I have a deep affection for Judaism, and I feel you've insulted it - so I let my contempt for you rip. I can see you're not used to facing the hard facts about your actual theatrical accomplishments, but that makes little difference to me. You've suffered terrible things in your life, I hear you - but so have I, and so have a lot of people who didn't end up recycling dated feminist cliches into an excuse for kicking their religion when it's down. As for your being a teacher - I'm afraid I find over and over again that pedagogues make lesser playwrights. You're just one more example of the type.

  4. And your review has the quality of a classroom bully, slinging nasty comments and name-calling because he feels small and doesn't know how else to cope. I love being a Jew, and I know you don't care. I'm an excellent teacher and I know you don't care; you said so. The bully pulpit is what you inhabit, and I hope you climb down from it before your life is over. I find you as boring as you find me. Don't insult my teaching; you know nothing about it. Don't bring up my relationship to being a Jew; you know nothing about me, and say you don't care. If you don't care, don't bring it up. Why are these things in your review, if you say they have no relevance and you're not interested? You're really a creep. Honestly: just a creep with a lot of anger and no place to put it but on playwrights. You say teachers are the ones who can't write? I've left out the often-spoken idea that critics are the ones who can't write, and have to judge those who can. You're just a creep to attack me personally. Please. Enough.

  5. Re: the salmon - is that all you got? Really? I have in my notes - "Bear salmon ?????" Sorry if I misremembered - slightly - but honestly, the lines are still very stupid. I guess you can't tell that.

    You also seem unclear about the nature of criticism. But if it IS a conversation (which it probably isn't), maybe you should try listening to what people are trying to tell you instead of telling them what they should say.

    And I'll let you in on a little secret. I told the theatre immediately that I was going to be giving you a blistering pan, but that I'd hold it till near the end of the run. I basically did this as a favor to the actors, whom I saw as the victims in the whole debacle. Perhaps I shouldn't have done this - it's debatable - but in point of fact I often do. I sometimes even dodge my reviewing duties entirely if the required pan is just too much of a chore. I was certainly tempted to ignore "Imagining Madoff"! In the end, though, I felt your phony intellectual status demanded that I set the record straight, so I waited till the last day of the run, and then let you have it. Of course almost a month had gone by since I'd seen it - and you did, indeed, put me to sleep (as you did at least four other people who have let me know they agree with me about your little opus). So I apologize if some details were a little fuzzy!

    And of COURSE you're going to retreat into claims of ad hominem attack - your type always does. (The second line of defense is sexism/racism/et al., so don't bother.) But for the record, let me say that I'm sure Deb Margolin is a very nice person. Kind to animals, responsible and loving, a terrific friend, mother, teacher, lover, travel companion and chef. Her only failing is that she is a very bad playwright.

    But you know, little as I want to, you have made me realize that I may have to keep playing whack-a-mole with you. You didn't get where you are without a kind of conniving ambition, and something tells me you'll be back. Not that I'm looking forward to your future work.

    You know something else? I am indeed a terrific reviewer.

  6. And my religion is not down. I am not kicking my religion at all, and my religion is not down. Being a Jew is gorgeous. If you think the Jewish religion is down, see a rabbi. And if you don't care about me personally, don't attack me personally in a review.

  7. Oh and btw - please don't misquote Shakespeare. "Me thinks the lady dost protest too much" - seriously? Read a book, can't you?

  8. Oh, God - more whack-a-mole. But ok, those that can't do, teach - so maybe you're a great teacher. Go teach! And maybe I'm a creep, maybe I'm a bully, maybe I'm a lot of things. So go have a good cry, by all means. I do realize, I admit, that you are just a silly creature staggering under the weight of the realization that you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. I'm sure you didn't realize that you'd wandered in your blind way into anti-Semitic territory. The whole thing is sad, really.

  9. Which of my plays have you read? Tell me the other plays of mine that you've read. I'd love to hear about the other shows of mine that you've read or seen. Which ones? Are they ALL this bad, or is this the worst, or what? You dear soul! And don't attack me personally if you don't care about me personally. If you'd kept your remarks to the extent and nature of your hatred for the play, you would have had nothing but a kind thank you for your attention from me. Don't attack me personally and then say you couldn't care less about me personally. And if you think I'm a terrible playwright, that's certainly none of my business; I'd just ask: which other plays of mine have you seen or read, such that you consider your statement comprehensive and well thought out? Conniving ambition! Wow! I've been a downtown person my whole life. And I support people not by excoriating them publicly, but by supporting them daily in the ways I can. Tikkun olam.

    The day's vanity, the night's remorse, you poor sucker.

  10. Uh - I'm not sure your last comment made any sense . . .

  11. Just btw, now she's emailing me, too. Oy!

  12. Not everyone agrees with you that the Madoff play is worthless and that I am a terrible playwright. Are you aware of that? You share the world with some people that don't feel the same way you do. You write as if your word is the last and only word. It's one word among many. I'm sorry you hate my play, and I completely accept that you hate it. I do not accept your unkind and ignorant personal statements about me.

  13. Ms. Margolin, I'm not publishing any more of this, so please do yourself a favor and move on.

  14. "Me thinks the lady dost protest too much!"

    Not that it matters much, but one would think a playwright could quote Hamlet correctly.

  15. Yeah, I know. This was quite a display!