REVIEW: Complex exploration of era’s biggest crook debuts with its own back story

Imagining Madoff/Stageworks Hudson

IN CASE YOU LEFT the planet for a while after 2008, let me introduce Bernie Madoff, the “wealth management” mogul, who now resides in  prison for having bilked wealthy individuals, banks, unions, and  charitable organizations out of billions of dollars. The real-life Madoff is scheduled to be in there for 150 years or–you know.

What an idea for a play!

Bernie lived as a typical Manhattan multi-millionaire, over-gorged with Upper East Side digs, jewels, cash, securities, multiple homes in nifty environs, a yacht, chairmanships of foundations and cultural institutions. He enjoyed the flocks of sycophants who always swarm around money.

Yes, what a theme for a play! You take an example of unmitigated, front-page wickedness and make some art out of imagining the workings of wicked’s mind. (Of course, exploring evil is better when lots of money is involved.)

One of the charitable foundations that real-life Madoff demolished was that of Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, much-admired real-life moralist and writer. Playwright Deborah Margolin originally made Wiesel a character in her play, and according to an article in the July 20 New York Times, she sent him a copy to read. To her astonishment, Wiesel responded labeling the play as “obscene” and “defamatory.” He threatened a law suit. (The Times’ story by Patrick Healy includes a good picture of the playwright with Laura Margolis, director of this production and artistic director at Stageworks.)  Wiesel’s response ended a premiere production in Washington, D.C., after which Ms. Margolis picked up the play, aided in changing the Wiesel character to a poet/Jewish scholar, and produced the premiere that we now have at Stageworks.

Although the tussle with Wiesel must have been extremely stressful for Margolin, in the end, it may be a publicity pot-of-gold. We are all listening to the poet’s lines, trying to determine what was “obscene” and “defamatory.”  I found nothing of that in the character. Only an intelligent, if mildly boring religionist who serves to draw out the character of Madoff, a role electrically played here by Mark Margolis.

Mark Margolis’ acting credits are as long as your leg, and this vivid performance is questionable only if you take seriously Bernie’s self-description–one that says he cultivated a quiet, dignified demeanor. In his scenes with the poet, Margolis is a rubber-bodied erupter, lashing out at concepts from the Torah and the Midrash. This is fiction, after all, and it’s an “imagined” view of Bernie’s inner and outer life, his self-serving rationalism, his few-and-far-between pricks of guilt, his raging contempt, his linking of power and money with his sexuality, his occasional metaphysical roamings (“I wanted my body to be a part of my mind”), his “Fuck all of you! I’m not afraid of you!”

There is a particularly beautiful and devastating section in which Madoff spins an extended fish metaphor. Fish are the men he likes to grab, own, kill, and savor as he ingests them from the plate on his dinner table.

The set by John Pollard, with its off-center, back-lit panels and simple furniture groupings, is eloquent. A beautiful, carved table in the poet’s area underlines the character’s financial comfort and good taste.

Direction is pared-down and informed by Margolis’ gift for casting good actors.

Robin Leslie Brown does wonders with a rather thankless role as Bernie’ secretary, mostly on the witness stand; and Howard Green does his professional best with the even more thankless part of a gentle poet/religionist, who is no match for Madoff.

Supposedly, the poet’s lines are pretty much the same as those previously assigned to Wiesel. What Wiesel objected to may not have been his own character as depicted, but the impression left by the play: that Bernie Madoff could possibly be correct in his view of humanity as stupid, greedy, silly in its preoccupation with ancient texts and rituals, and somewhat deserving of the fleecing he gave them. Maybe the playwright told the truth, and humanist Wiesel found this truth “obscene” and “defamatory” of the whole human species.

In spite of its virtues, I did not “enjoy” this play.  By nine-o’clock I was nursing my own sweaty discomforts and thinking that, had I not been hired to review it, I would leave.  After nine o’clock, I mostly succumbed; but only on the way home, thinking about it and arguing about it, did it reveal itself as a good experience.

You will appreciate the evening’s fresh, expressive language, the issues raised, and, incidentally, Margolin’s answer to Madoff’s joke, “How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb?”  but I am still unsure about whether or not this is really “a play.”

There are performances through August 7, so you may decide for yourself. Reserve seats at (518) 822-9667. For further information, visit the website at www.stageworkshudson.org.

 

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