The title of Imagining Madoff — now running at Theatre Row, courtesy of New Light Theater Project — describes both the play’s mission and its titular subject’s preferred activity, a duality that probes the similarities between Bernie’s famed — infamous? — misdeeds and the nature of historical storytelling in art.
Both the man and the show imagine Madoff. The former concocted an appealing, likable persona to sell trust based on lies, mixing unverifiable facts with self-aggrandizing, self-crafted, embellished fictions. Is that so different than historical theatre, which mixes textbook facts and the real bodies on stage in front of us with the fictions of its obvious artifice, blurring the lines between them all in a sourced but still fantastical stew meant to appeal to us so we like it? In other words, both Bernie and Imagining Madoff perform his identity — and history — through a mix of fact and fiction for our benefit.
For those who use art to learn about life, it can be said that theatre achieves truth through illusion, while conmen mask truth under illusion. In relation, they juxtapose how we divine truth from art with how we divine truth from what we perceive. Imagining Madoff touches upon these connections by linking a person mistaking the artifice of television for reality with how Madoff’s victims mistook his artifice for reality, a concept that’s palpably relevant to America’s current reality-TV political moment (ahem).
But when comparing “lying” on a stage with lying off of it, intentionality matters. In a theater, the audience is aware that everyone’s voluntarily participating in a collective illusion, which wasn’t the case for Bernie and co. And yet, we have a habit of treating historical art as a replacement for actual education, blindly and mistakenly trusting that what we’re seeing is an unfiltered window into the historical record. Ardent defenders of art would posit that Bernie’s lies were more damaging to his spectators than art can be, but this argument ignores the corrosive influence of examples like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which fashioned itself as a historical chronicling of the Civil War era that positioned the then-fledgling KKK as national heroes protecting against the threat of black equality, ultimately bolstering the hate-group’s popularity over the next CENTURY.
Even Imagining Madoff-esque art that appears to be well-researched and littered with facts can be partially, or even completely imaginary, which is why no one should believe ANYTHING without doing their own due diligence. Hopefully Imagining Madoff compels us to ask questions inspired by and concerning Bernie, art, and communal existence, such as:
Can we create something true out of lies? Is it possible to attain something true when it’s founded upon false pretenses? Is truth under false pretenses still true? Can a true, meaningful connection be forged out of a lie? How much do we consider intentionality in our judgements? How do we invest in stories enough to learn from them while also doubting their veracity? Can we simultaneously trust AND remain skeptical of tall tales?
If only Imagining Madoff delved into this potent terrain. Instead, the production rambles and meanders — perhaps in another attempt to channel its and his pontificating lead? — through these ideas, which it skirts by in mere suggestion on its way to focusing the bulk of its attention on imparting the usual factoids and mundane, pedestrian character insights. The trifurcated structure fails to put the disparate elements in conversation with each other to elevate them into a whole that’s greater than the sum of the dissonant pieces.
But maybe that’s intentional, too? The parts Bernie sold deliberately never added up for anyone but himself, and he prayed his duped audiences would be satisfied with the morsels alone. In the end, it didn’t work for him, and it doesn’t work for Imagining Madoff.