Editors' pick

Imagining Madoff

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Editorial Review

A morality tale, freewheeling and unconventional

By Nelson Pressley
Friday, Sept. 9, 2011

Deb Margolin's "Imagining Madoff" has a firm identity as The Play That Angered Elie Wiesel: Last year the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, one of the many bilked by the herculean Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, objected to Margolin's portrayal. So Margolin was compelled to write Wiesel out of her fiction.

The result, taking the stage a year late at Theater J thanks to the kerfuffle, is still an encounter between notorious knave and vaunted angel, even if the angel is now called Solomon Galkin. But Margolin, whose early triumphs came with the lesbian feminist troupe Split Britches, is hardly going the docudrama route. The identities of her invented/semi-real characters are freewheeling and unexpected.

How many playwrights, for instance, would put into Madoff's mouth the admiring line about Ginger Rogers - that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels? Margolin does. (Perhaps he really said it, but it registers as a surprise coming from the brusque, masculine Madoff as played by Rick Foucheux.) Margolin's Madoff also has a bizarre erotic dream in which he imagines himself with female genitalia - shaped like a wallet.

So if you want Madoff more routinely documented, read one of the dozens of available books or catch a movie. (Robert De Niro has a Madoff project in the works; the numbing documentary "Chasing Madoff" is in theaters.)

Galkin's as surprising as Madoff, earthy and chatty as the guys drink and banter about women (surprisingly frank) and baseball (Galkin the philosopher likes the timelessness of the game; Madoff the operator and financial saboteur of the Mets offers to hook him up with primo tickets). The shadow of Wiesel sticks to Galkin, of course, and you can't peel it off: "I am the public face of courage," the character says with a shrug. But the details of this vital figure are plainly Margolin's.

The high moral showdown between these outsize Jewish men is inevitable, if slow to build, as Margolin slots in themes about time and awareness, trust and faith. The gap between Madoff and Galkin shrinks and widens tantalizingly. At one point Galkin wraps Madoff in tefillin, Jewish prayer bindings, and the ritual act feels stunningly intimate. Yet there is also a riveting irony in Galkin's faith in this appealing crook, whom he keeps addressing as "dear friend," and in the shame that wells up in the squirming Madoff.

The fancies are shrewdly anchored in reality by a third character, Madoff's secretary. The nameless woman fretfully testifies that she knew nothing about her boss's business shenanigans, and in Jennifer Mendenhall's potent portrayal, the woman is mortified to tears.

Mike Nussbaum is as authoritative as Galkin - avuncular and with an appetite for jokes, and thunderous when the argument turns, pivotally, to the story of Abraham and Isaac. But Alexandra Aron's confident 90-minute production is powered by Foucheux's restless turn as Madoff, who's often stuck in a little jail cell (complete with steel toilet) cleverly sunken into Lauren Helpern's impressive book-lined design. Foucheux puts Madoff's anger and arrogance on the surface, but he's a skater, too - elusive and slick, invisibly untethered from everything Galkin represents.

You can see why "Imagining Madoff" has been controversial. Margolin takes chances and seeks unconventional connections. The play is not newsy, and it's hardly the last word on Madoff. But the license Margolin claims, diminished though it is, is intriguingly exercised.

‘Imagining Madoff’ gives local actor another chance to play a real-life figure

By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

Growing up in South Louisiana, celebrated local actor Rick Foucheux always preferred the fanciful realm of his imagination to the gray concreteness of the real world.

"I was big for my age, so all the other kids in the neighborhood wanted me to play sports with them, and I wouldn't do it," says Foucheux, a two-time Helen Hayes Award winner. "My druthers were to always be playing with the younger kids; cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians."

Maybe that makes the nearly 30-year veteran of the Washington theater scene an ideal candidate to star in Theater J's season opener, "Imagining Madoff." Although Foucheux portrays a real person - convicted Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff - the setting and conversations are pure fiction. (For the real thing, see Page 25 for a review of the Madoff documentary "Chasing Madoff.")

"In this script, the word 'imagining' is very important," says Foucheux, 57. "If people are coming to this play to get a travelogue of how this whole thing went down, I think they're going to be disappointed. It's not a made-for-TV movie: 'The Bernie Madoff Story.' "

Deb Margolin's play was to have launched the theater's 2010 season, but another real-life character, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, forced a rewrite. The Nobel Prize winner didn't appreciate his presence in the play, in which he was presented as a foil to the depraved Madoff during an extended fabricated conversation. The playwright has since traded Wiesel's character for the fictional Solomon Galkin, who Foucheux says retains the status of "a venerated elder statesman of the Jewish community."

"This is more a really interesting psychological, intellectual, philosophical exploration of good and evil," Foucheux says. "And the playwright has taken a lot of license. It's not that she's taken license with the facts, so much as that the facts haven't been an important part of the play."

This isn't the first time Foucheux has played a historical figure. He donned glasses and a three-piece suit to embody the eccentric scientist Buckminster Fuller at Arena Stage in 2010 for a daunting 21 / 2-hour monologue. And his impersonation of George W. Bush in Olney Theater's 2008 play "Stuff Happens" led Washington Post critic Peter Marks to remark that despite the differences in stature, "something in the way that Foucheux fixes his gaze and carries his body . . . captures Bush uncannily." Even in those cases, the actor wasn't spending a lot of time on mimicry.

"It was not my intention to do a dead-on impersonation of the president, but by picking a few things in his speech, in his cadence, in his walk and his thinking about certain things, what emerged was, I think, a fairly good portrayal of him," Foucheux says. "And I suspect the same is going to happen here."

Although the actor looked at YouTube videos of Madoff ("But who hasn't?"), he tried to focus solely on the story according to Margolin, taking a cue from sequestered juries.

"The more I got into the script, the more I realized I didn't want my knowledge of the facts to interrupt what the playwright has put on the page," Foucheux says. "I believe in the saying - it's becoming a bit trite - but 'If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage.' "

And that's just fine with Margolin, who is more interested in interpretation than imitation.

"The verisimilitude physically doesn't feel important to me," the playwright says. "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."

So what arrives at Theater J is less about newsy tidbits than about universal themes, such as good vs. evil and the human capacity for manipulation and equivocation. Maybe it will even give audience members pause to consider their own actions.

"Nobody's greedy to Bernie Madoff's standards, but we have all experienced greed," Foucheux says. "Who among us hasn't passed a watch shop and said, 'Boy, I would like that one and that one and that one.' "