- Stephen Singer plays Bernie Madoff in the Stageworks/Hudson production of "Imagining Madoff" this month.
The man who bilked people out of $65 billion seems an unlikely subject of a play. But in an era rife with antiheroes, when even the Enron suits merit a Broadway musical, why shouldn’t Bernie Madoff’s rise and fall be the stuff of stage drama?
But celebrated off-Broadway playwright Deborah Margolin, whose "Imagining Madoff" opens this month at Stageworks/Hudson, wasn’t looking for a theatrical equivalent of angry mobs with torches. Instead, she wanted to understand what motivated Madoff to maintain his Ponzi scheme for two decades, before a judge sentenced him to 150 years for crimes against humanity.
“The beauty of theater,” says Margolin, who has been writing and acting since the late 70s, is that “you’re going to have to find a clinical compassion for whomever you are representing—to drop down into the body or the mind of the character you’re writing for, or portraying, and see the world through that person’s eyes.”
When the playwright began "Imagining" last year, she had to do so literally; Madoff had been notoriously tight-lipped, betraying neither motive nor emotion as he testified in court before the world. Therefore, Margolin was forced to speculate what possessed the man to persist in his pyramid deals and how he rationalized it personally.
“I listened for his voice,” she says. In the play, Madoff sits in his cell, discussing his situation with an obedient assistant and a wise man that challenges his amorality. (The wise man was originally meant to be Eli Weisel, but the philosopher-Holocaust scribe balked at being depicted.)
Margolin depicts a deeply cynical man who sees only a greedy world and, bolstered by his presumptions, simply mirrors that persona. Nonetheless, even this monster tailor-made for a new “Me Decade” emerges, under Margolin’s expert treatment, as a complicated person weighing the chances for redemption. (The scenario brings to mind Roy Cohn in "Angels in America," railing on his deathbed.)
“I sought and found his humanity,” she said, “twisted, numb, and neglected by him as that was.”
One of the first people to read the first draft was Laura Margolis, founder and artistic director of Stageworks/Hudson. At the time last summer, she was staging a Margolin one-act titled "This Is What I Wanted" for their annual one-act festival. Margolis offered to mount the Madoff play this summer, Stageworks’ 15th season,“I think she’s an astonishing, visionary director,“ says Margolin, an Obie award winner for lifetime achievement, of Margolis, who offered direction and support for a second draft of the text. “I have been educated by every conversation I’ve had with her.”
Presenting offbeat works is the mandate of Stageworks/Hudson, Margolis says. Conventional “kitchen sink plays” are avoided, as are revivals of crowd-pleasing classics. In the past, when Margolis strayed from her commitment to edgy pieces, “our audiences have gotten angry at us.”
Joining "Imagining Madoff" this season is "Or," a postmodern imagining of a feminist rebel in 1660s England by Liz Duffy Adams (ending July 4); "The Amish Project" by Jessica Dickey (August 18-September 5), which examines a tragedy in this close-knit community; and the annual Play by Play Festival (September 29-October 10).
"This year’s plays," says Stageworks’ Margolis, ”send a very strong message but without being political.”
"Imagining Madoff" by Deborah Margolin, July 21-August 8 at Stageworks/Hudson, 41-A Cross Street, Hudson. Tickets $18-$29. (518) 822-9667; www.stageworkshudson.org.