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.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Deb Margolin. Directed by Alexandra Aron. Costumes, Debra Kim Sevigny; lights, Dan Covey; sound, Elisheba Ittoop; projections, Klyph Stanford. About 90 minutes. Through Sept. 25 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or go to boxofficetickets.com.