By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; C01
Bowing to objections from Elie Wiesel, the author, human rights activist and Holocaust survivor, Theater J has canceled its first production of the coming season -- a play in which Wiesel is a character.
"Imagining Madoff" by Deb Margolin was to be a world premiere for the Washington troupe, running from Aug. 28 to Oct. 3, with actor Rick Foucheux portraying convicted Ponzi schemer Bernard L. Madoff.
In the fictional play, Madoff in his prison cell recalls a long-ago, all-night discussion with Wiesel in the author's study. No such meeting ever took place. Margolin, a veteran dramatist, performance artist and associate professor of theater at Yale, explained in an interview Tuesday that her intentions in the play are purely metaphorical.
"He was metaphorically placed in the room with this man so I could investigate moral complexities about what kind of person could commit the kind of crimes Bernard Madoff committed. . . . It enabled me to look at both ends of the moral spectrum and the points in between. And so I was very sorry to have displeased Professor Wiesel. And quite devastated by his response," she says.
Margolin says the 81-year-old Wiesel wrote a letter to her describing the play as "obscene" and "defamatory" and stating that he would have his lawyer stop the production.
She says she used Wiesel's persona in her three-character play (which includes Madoff's secretary) because "his name is synonymous with decency, morality, the struggle for human dignity and kindness, and in contrast to the most notorious financial criminal in the past 200 years. That's why he was there, and I felt I had treated his character with great respect -- the respect that I genuinely have felt for him."
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity had all its assets, $15.2 million, invested with Madoff and lost them when the Ponzi scheme unraveled. In addition, Wiesel personally lost several million dollars to Madoff.
Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth said the Wiesel Foundation was uncomfortable with having its founder's name used in the play, but early on Wiesel had not objected. "It wasn't until Wiesel read the play and found it to be exactly as Deb purported, a work of fiction . . . [that] Wiesel didn't consent to it," Roth says.
Roth offered to have Margolin revise the play, replacing Wiesel with a fictional character. She began to work on it, he says, but finally rejected the idea. Says Margolin, "Unfortunately, I didn't really feel . . . I could do all those things. And I asked my agent to withdraw the play."
Officials at the foundation said Tuesday that Wiesel was out of the country and unreachable for comment. They said no one else could speak for him.
Roth says that the Wiesel Foundation gives no money to Theater J or the D.C. Jewish Community Center, where the company performs. However, Roth is acquainted with Wiesel and from the start, he says, "I was determined to have this play not be one that would be discomforting to him. I never would have done this play if Elie Wiesel would be upset or angry about it."
Theater J's new season opener will be "Something You Did" by Willy Holtzman. First done in New York in 2008, the play is also inspired by real people: It's about a 1960s radical in prison for an act of violent protest that caused the death of a policeman.