The always excellent Washington City Paper has a big feature all about Theater J’s cancellation, at Elie Wiesel’s request, of the world premiere of Imagining Madoff, a play that featured a fictional jailhouse meeting between Bernard Madoff and Wiesel.
The central irony is that the head of the theater (which is funded by the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center) has been known for pushing the envelope—he staged a controversial play about slain pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, for example. Additionally, a rewrite of the script, in which Wiesel’s character was slightly altered (and no longer called Elie Wiesel), probably removed all grounds for legal action. Still, fear of the hassle that a lawsuit brings—as well as, just maybe, Artistic Director Ari Roth’s personal relationship with Wiesel—led Theater J to nix the world premiere, which will now take place this summer in upstate New York. (Roth has also pledged to stage the revised version of the play next year.)
As originally written, the play had only three characters: Madoff; Wiesel; and Madoff’s secretary. Yet, according to playwright Deborah Margolin, these figures, and particularly Wiesel, were primarily allegorical. Madoff stood for, well, all the bad stuff Madoff stands for; Wiesel stood for moral force. “A recurring element in the play,” WCP notes, “is Wiesel’s insistence that Madoff handle his personal assets as well as those of the foundation; by play’s end, Madoff has yet to agree, a poignant ellipsis that mirrors Madoff’s desire and inability to confess his sins to Wiesel.”
However, having received an advance copy of the script, Wiesel—whose foundation lost $15 million to Madoff, and who personally lost over $1 million—called it “obscene” and “defamatory,” prompting Margolin to change his character’s name. In the new version—which is the one being produced upstate—the character, a Long Island rabbi, is described as “Novelist, holocaust survivor, humanitarian, professor, lifelong witness,” which should sound familiar.
“Wiesel is part of the family,” Roth told WCP. He meant this figuratively, of course, except maybe not exclusively: His mother, who was hidden from the Nazis during World War II, has been friends with Wiesel for half a century. Though the altered version of the play almost certainly removed the chance that a court would find for Wiesel, “that wasn’t enough for Roth, who felt,” the paper reports, “that the gray areas of the law could land him in court—a place he’d willingly go to defend some sorts of creative freedom, but not the right to offend Elie Wiesel.”