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Madoff's Theater of the Absurd

March 29, 2012 By:
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New York playwright Deb Margolin had her own drama with the play.

"Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can. ..."

Victims of Bernie Madoff can.

But this is probably not what John Lennon had in mind.

But it is what Deb Margolin had imagined when she wrote Imagining Madoff, a flight-of-fantasy fulmination on the rogue Robin Hood of Bizarro World.

It will be staged for one night, April 14, at Theatre at KI (www.TheatreAtKI.org), a program of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.

But that Night probably won't be attended by Elie Wiesel.

Playwright Margolin -- a protean award-winning writer and performance artist, as well as associate professor at Yale University -- has a history with Wiesel, who, in real life, had a history with embezzler extraordinaire Bernie Madoff.

The Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner lost millions, bilked of his personal fortune and a great deal of his foundation's largess by Madoff, who made off with billions on his way to jail.

But when the playwright sent Wiesel -- who was to be a main character in her show -- a copy of her script prior to its planned production at Theater J in Washington, D.C., seeking his imprimatur, Wiesel was not impressed. Enraged would better describe his reaction as he reportedly railed at the work as "obscene" and "defamatory."

"I was shocked," remembers the playwright. The witty Margolin unwittingly collected threats of a libel lawsuit by Wiesel for her inclusion of him in the 44-page play, which was a fictional confrontation between the hooligan and the Holocaust survivor icon.

After a tussle with Theater J, which called for a rewrite and replacement of Wiesel's character, Margolin felt marginalized by the artistic mayhem and pulled the play from production.

Margolin eventually rewrote the Wiesel role -- converting the character into a fictional rabbi from Long Island -- and the play premiered in 2010 to acclaim at a different theater, Stageworks/ Hudson in Hudson, N.Y.

But you won't hear a bad word about the literary lion from Margolin, whose admiration for the survivor survived even his attorney's letter to stop the original production.

It was so hurtful, she says of Wiesel's whiplash effect on her efforts, "for here is a person who stands for freedom of expression."

She stands vindicated now; the new fictional character and his moral mano-a-manos with Madoff make for some feisty theater.

Imagine that -- and that is all the playwright has asked all along since the play lives up to its title of a fictional encounter.

Write what you know -- that's the old motto, but how would Margolin know of Madoff's mad money madness? "I was him," she says of delving into her own id while creating the character.

And the "great grief" she had from the Wiesel brouhaha made her grow; "it made me go deeper into the play."

But is it all good for the Jews? The play invests in what it means to be morally -- and monetarily -- culpable, and when the Wiesel dust-up had its day, "I am sure there were some anti-Semitic people who were pleased at" Jew battling Jew.

What she has drawn on is the art of the steal and framed it in terms "of an enduring moral investigation" that may very well play on beyond Madoff's eternal sentence.

The writer has learned from her research into the depth of the flim-flam king of fleece street that is her main character.

Indeed, would she invest her time in finding an investment guru for her own funds? "I have never and will never do that!" she forcefully exclaims.

Wait a minute, she adds with a shot of humor, "you have any good tips?"

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