Burned by Bernie
The controversial new Madoff play may be obscene, but that’s why it’s great
Earlier this year, playwright Deborah Margolin sent Elie Wiesel the original version of a script fictionalizing Wiesel’s real-life betrayal by Bernie Madoff; the renowned author wrote back threatening to take legal action against its production. The play, he wrote, was “defamatory” and “obscene.” Margolin’s revised version of Imagining Madoff, which opened last week in upstate New York, is now difficult to construe as defamatory: Wiesel is gone, replaced by a character who shares some of his defining traits but not his name. But if we take “obscene” to mean that which lies outside the moral boundaries Wiesel has spent his career policing, the play is still that—which is what makes it a great work of theater.
The main action of Imagining Madoff—playing at Stageworks Hudson in Hudson, New York—takes place during a long, scotch-soaked, pre-recession evening in the study of Solomon Galkin, a Holocaust survivor, poet, and Jewish community leader who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to a certain Nobel laureate. Madoff, as imagined by Margolin, manages the funds of the Manhattan synagogue where Galkin (Howard Green) is treasurer; now Galkin, dazzled with the results, has summoned the magician to his home, hoping Madoff will take on his personal investments as well. The men banter easily, and their business meeting becomes a rambling debate over money, morality, Judaism, the Holocaust, and sex, with Madoff playing the whip-smart cynic to Galkin’s erudite moralist. What Galkin doesn’t know is that, like the hapless mortals of religious allegory who try to out-reason the Devil (as in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov) or Death (as in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal), his interlocutor holds a stacked deck—and Galkin’s fate—in his hands.
In Margolin’s telling, Madoff (played wonderfully by Mark Margolis) may not literally be Satan, but like the devils of literature, he can be charming, sadistic, and profound at the same time. Sitting in his prison cell, telling his story to a biographer (the scene in Galkin’s study is actually an extended flashback), he makes what may sound like a laughably outrageous claim: “I didn’t really care that much about the money.” But perhaps it’s not so outrageous. Serial killers, we know from the movies, are motivated less by practicality than by perversity—even, like Hannibal Lecter, by refined aesthetics—so, why can’t the same be true of serial extortionists? “There was the music of it,” Madoff says wistfully. The dollars don’t just flash before his eyes; he waltzes with them. Later, he remembers a dream in which his penis is a vagina and his vagina is a wallet. The play’s third character, a former Madoff secretary whom we periodically see testifying before the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, offers the deliciously creepy fact that in 10 years, she never saw her former boss get up to go to the bathroom.
Most devilishly of all, Madoff as portrayed by Margolin is a kind of unconscientious objector to the moral universe presided over by the god of Abraham, where piety and obedience are rewarded and hubris is shunned. Galkin, then, is his natural enemy: a man who has seen hell and, instead of capitulating to its amoral code, has embraced Torah, ethics, and the Jewish people. He also happens to be a bit of a sap. Prattling about God and Sandy Koufax in his plush study, he comes across as self-satisfied and somewhat soft in the head. Madoff repeatedly attempts to convince Galkin that the latter’s beloved Talmudic riddles are not paths to higher wisdom but to complacency. Galkin will have none of it: For him, the very fact that a financial sorcerer is managing his synagogue’s funds is evidence of divine favor. “A lot of people ask me: Who is this Madoff? How does he make these miracles with money?” he says. “And I tell them: No one knows! That’s what makes it a miracle!”
Galkin, in short, is Madoff’s perfect mark: His belief in providence and in the goodness of fellow Jews makes him easy to exploit, and that, in turn, means Madoff wins their philosophical debate. His ability to betray his own people reveals the limits of Galkin’s moral imagination. “I wanted to rip up the picture he had of the world,” Madoff tells us. “His picture of the world as a place where some men are purely moral. I wanted to say, ‘Wake up, asshole! Wake up!’ It’s a danger to the world, that picture, that idea of moral men. With that picture in your mind you’ll be murdered in your sleep.”
Margolin’s most disturbing insinuation, as voiced through Madoff—the one, perhaps, that Wiesel found most obscene—is that Galkin’s credulousness mirrors that of the proverbial good Germans, who trusted that a charismatic countryman would not lead them toward catastrophe. “Wouldn’t you, wouldn’t any man, still follow the leader blindly without knowing where he was going?” Madoff demands. Galkin will not entertain the possibility that despite his hard-won moral insights, he too is capable of “just following orders”; Madoff, meanwhile, never seems to consider that such a consummately human failing deserves sympathy rather than contempt.
In the end, the only character willing to consider the possibility that she has erred is the one without a bone to pick about the essential moral character of the world. “I never asked many questions,” Madoff’s secretary tells the SEC guiltily at the beginning of the play. By its end, she has charged herself more harshly than a judge, earthly or celestial, ever would. “I committed a crime,” she says, “and I didn’t even know it.”
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