If you are thrilled at the idea that Bernie Madoff, Wall Street Ponzi schemer bar none (The real greats haven’t been caught and jailed yet), would die and go to hell, you may be disappointed by Lee Blessing’s take on hellish justice, torture and punishment in A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff directed by Michole Biancosino. In fact, if you were taken in by Mr. Madoff and your dignity fails at even the slightest mention of the man’s outrageous gall in hoodwinking some of the most clever banking institutions and charities, then avoid this production. It is sardonic, riotous and funny, turning propriety on its ear and smacking up against the absurd at every turn.
A User’s Guide to Hell is a spare “how to” that Blessing offers using Madoff as THE representative, a malevolent sinner trolling through the far reaches of Satan’s domain, with a few references to Dante’s Inferno and Divine Comedy thrown in for good measure. Shepherding Madoff (an excellent Edward James Hyland) on his journey through hell is Verge (the humorous David Deblinger), reminiscent of Dante’s Virgil. Virgil navigates Dante through the nine rings of hell in the Inferno. However, Blessing’s hellish place is a New York City that’s closed off to Madoff. The buildings are familiar to him, even his own residence, but there are no doors or entrances of any kind. He must remain without a home, a street person, though he is able to move through a fog and go other places in the the city, Central Park for example. But the park is far from a refuge, and is, like everything else Verge attempts to explain, puzzling for Madoff who can’t figure out what hell is.
On the streets of NYC, Madoff encounters some of the denizens of hell. They all rely on their own belief systems to get around. These characters, males (portrayed by Eric Sutton) and females (Erika Rose) include Dr. Josef Mengele (who has been summoned to punish Madoff as per Madoff’s request); one of the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers; a woman who killed her children to protect them; Madoff’s son who commits suicide; a Hindu wife burned by her husband; and the doorman of Madoff’s building. There are also Madoff’s victims and adherents who either vilify or adore him according to their belief systems.
Madoff attempts to tease out what hell means to them and why they are there, in order to uncover his own journey and belief system. Madoff’s interactions with these evildoers are outrageous, darkly humorous, and over-the-top hysterical. No religion’s concept of the afterlife escapes Blessing’s satire. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, even skepticism are trounced roundly with humor, as is the human inclination toward guilt and punishment.
Madoff’s expectations of everlasting punishment and the darkness of oblivion are never fulfilled. Blessing cleverly takes the hell construct he has been playing with and spins it into something even more ironic when Verge brings Madoff back to Wall Street. This becomes a heavenly place where Madoff is lauded and celebrated. Why? It’s obvious. This Wall Street hero deflected “the heat” from the rest of the financiers, moguls and CEOs who escaped unscathed. Because of the Madoff “distraction,” with impunity they continue to operate business as usual. Madoff, originally from the middle class, never really belonged or was connected to elite groups. Others with different backgrounds, who engineered the financial and mortgage debacle known as the Great Depression II, are still walking between the raindrops, enjoying their villas, residences and lifestyles in cities throughout the world. Who are they? Will we ever know?
Blessing’s theme is clear. The culture creates, supports and encourages the twisted values that Bernie Madoff embodied: acquiring money, wealth, and luxury without the drag of morality or ethics to slow one down. If one can shake consciousness and moral upbringing, then all is well. Besides, punishment and guilt are irrational. If one cannot shake these, as Blessing suggests is true of Madoff and many of us, then despite the absence of judgment or punishment, we and Madoff will have to live with our consciousness of prior acts. Therein is the judgment and punishment. Oneself!
Michole Biancosino executes the playwright’s vision of hell without spectacle or fanfare, and this fits, as the implication is that it all happens in Madoff’s ever-wakeful consciousness. The actors in the main roles are convincing, aptly humorous and outrageous without pushing it for laughs. Erika Rose particularly is wonderful and feeling as the mother who killed her children and the Hindu woman who tickles her husband in his reincarnated form.
With additional cast: Noah Berman, Jean Jisoo Hyu, Molly O’Keefe, Evan Coles, Sarah Lusche, Gadi Rush.
A User’s Guide to Hell Featuring Bernard Madoff is a world premiere produced by Project Y Theatre Company at the Atlantic Stage 2 on 330 West 16th St., NYC. It runs through September 28.