The story about the travails of getting the play “Imagining Madoff” to the stage at Theater J has been documented pretty much everywhere. But now the show is here, opening the theater’s 2011-12 season, and playwright Deb Margolin is excited for people to see the play for what it is rather than focusing on the turmoil that has surrounded it. She took time Tuesday morning to chat, and the conversation veered from how she got into the head of convicted Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff to what she’ll be working on next (the title is something to behold) and how writing the play led to unexpected clairvoyance.
Stephanie Merry: Can you talk about how the play came to you?
Deb Margolin: I was asked by Jennifer Miller — she’s known as the Bearded Lady; she’s a downtown performance icon and Circus Amok is her company. . . Jennifer called me and said, “I’m doing a play called ‘Cracked Ice’ and I want to put Bernard Madoff in this play. Will you write him some monologues?” I was like, “Yes, of course. What, are you kidding? Of course.”
And I began the way I always begin a play, which is by entering the mind and body of the protagonist. The unique beauty of writing for the theater is that your language comes from your own body and returns to someone else’s body. It comes from the body and returns to the body. It’s the word made flesh in that sense.
So I did no research about Bernie Madoff. I’d of course seen yelling on the TV that this man has a Ponzi scheme and he’s this Jewish guy and it’s a shandeh, you know, and it’s just horrifying. But I did no biographical research about this man. People, knowing I was working on this, tried to send me articles and links, but I declined to look at them. I put them aside as dessert after the meal of my going into the mind of this man. The precept I laid for myself was: If I were going to be telling a very, very big lie that pushed everyone away and made me doubt all the love that I might otherwise have — when you tell a lie, you push away love and the bigger the lie, the bigger the push. If you’re living a lie, anyone who loves you, you feel like they don’t really love you, because if they knew X, Y or Z, what would that feeling really be?
So I entered his mind; if I were living a lie for 30 years, a lie of this magnitude, who would I need to be? And I just began to listen for his voice. And I heard it, and I wrote down what I heard. And a number of the key and critical monologues in the play were written and put in Jennifer Miller’s play, “Cracked Ice,” that had juggling and all kinds of carrying on, and my friend Rae C. Wright — a woman — played him.
When that play went down, I realized I was not at all finished with my investigation and that I wanted to bring other people in to provide counterweights for a serious moral investigation of what had happened.
SM: And by that point you started reading.
DM: No. I still did not read the articles. I did not do any biographical research. The research I did for this play was Judaica, was Judaic research. I opened up Talmud, Midrash, I visited my rabbi, I asked certain questions. That’s the research I did. . . . It was not my intention to be a journalist. It was my intention to be a fictionalist, a dramatist. It’s a work of fiction.
SM: And that research you did on Judaica comes up in the conversation between Solomon Galkin and Madoff, correct?
DM: Yes. And Solomon Galkin’s consulting the Talmud both in his conversation with his scene partner, Bernie Madoff, as well as in his present, which is postlapsarian, if I may say that. He already knows that he’s been betrayed, and we see moments of him in the present consulting these Judaic texts as ways of comforting himself, as ways of educating himself about the nature of humanity and what’s happened to him.
SM: There have been seeds of real life in your plays before, both from your own life and from the news, but is this the first time you’ve focused on one real person?
DM: It is. The new piece I’m working on borrows from the momentum I feel, but, yes, it is the first time that I’ve really taken an extant public figure and investigated him in this way
SM: Can you talk about what you’re working on now or is that still under wraps?
DM: Yes. I don’t know how much time you have, but the name of the play, this new piece, is “Good Morning Anita Hill, It’s Ginni Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and come to understand why you did what you did. Okay, have a good day.” That’s the name of it. That’s an exact transcript of what Ginni Thomas said to Anita Hill on her answering machine. I am traumatized by that event. I was, of course, 20 years younger, as we all were when the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings aired before us, and I’m investigating that now.
SM: Interesting. That was going to be one of my questions. Given how difficult the process has been, would you ever do this again — take a real living person and put them into a fictional context?
DM: It’s actually interesting, because the First Amendment guarantees us the right, in a non-libelous, non-slanderous way, to fictionalize public figures. I’ve written an article that is published in the most recent issue of the Drama Review that has to do with the first amendment, and the right to free speech belonging to whoever has money to apply that right to themselves, and using the example of Aaron Sorkin writing “The Social Network” and getting right up in the face of this very powerful young man who founded Facebook, with a very elegant, very brutal portrait of that young man. And there was no lawsuit because Aaron Sorkin is a multimillionaire and he has a phalanx of lawyers and of course young Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire. . . .
SM: Given that Madoff is a real person but this is all a fictional context, how important do you think it is for Rick Foucheux, or whoever is playing Madoff, to resemble the real-life person?
DM: I think it’s important for him to resemble the character on the page. The verisimilitude physically doesn’t feel important to me. I feel like Rick is a very, very gifted actor who finds the physical and emotional truth of whatever character he’s playing, and it is my fervent hope that I’ve given him here on the page a character that he can seek to resemble as opposed to anybody he’s seen on television or in the newspaper.
And interestingly enough, the character of Madoff as I imagined him — just listened for his voice and wrote down what I heard — so many of the things in the play have come to pass. The play was actually written, for the most part, in 2008 and 2009, and the play culminates in Madoff expressing his extreme discomfort with the Abraham and Isaac story in the Bible where God tells Abraham to kill his son and he just takes the boy and is ready to do it. And Bernie Madoff expresses extreme anguish and discomfort over this story; he says it makes him miserable, as he aches to tell the truth to someone and telling the truth is the first step to honest love with another human being, which he hasn’t had in 30 years. Somehow the vehicle in which he drives toward telling the truth about what he’s been doing is the Abraham and Isaac story: How could he just listen? How could he listen to the voice of God? How could he sacrifice his own son?
SM: But you wrote that before.. . .?
DM: Well before the suicide of his son. There’s also a major monologue about the New York Mets and about Galkin saying, “Do you like baseball, Bernie?” And Bernie says, “Nah, not really, I don’t really pay attention to it,” and he says, “I like the Mets, the New York Mets.” Of course, as you know, Madoff probably destroyed the Mets organization financially. I did not know any of this.
SM: How did that come to you?
DM: It’s not unique to me. I really feel when playwrights drop down and put their ear to the collective unconscious, they come up with truthful things because we’re all part of the moment out of which this play is wrought. We’re all the playwrights of this play in that sense. I don’t mean to be mystical, but there is that way in which when we listen to the collective unconscious, we all hear what’s inevitable. And that’s why it was so interesting to see these things; well before any of this came to pass, so many things were sort of prescient, not because I’m some kind of Cassandra. But really because that’s just what happens when you write a play, when you listen.
SM: When you came down for the initial reading, was anything new revealed to you about the play?
DM: I always say that a play is written twice. Once by the playwright and again by the actors, and just hearing the lines read was astonishing. Rick you know and have seen in many different guises, but his scene partner, Mike Nussbaum, is just an astonishing actor. He’s a person that finds the most resonant notes of truth in what he’s doing. He’s 89 years old, and he’s an astonishing mind and body. I had heard Rick Foucheux read this play, but hearing the addition of Mike Nussbaum’s voice as counterpoint to Rick’s voice, it filled me with wonder and a sense of humility. I feel very fortunate to have this collection of actors working on this play. It educates me every time I hear them read the lines. I hear things I didn’t even know were there.