He may not have been the devil incarnate, but for those whose lives were ruined by Bernie Madoff, he might as well have been. Now the white-collar criminal mastermind gets his just desserts in Lee Blessing’s new black comedy, “A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff,” starring Edward James Hyland (“Boardwalk Empire”), which opened last weekend at Atlantic Stage in Chelsea.
The playwright is best known for “A Walk in the Woods,” a 1986 Broadway work about nuclear proliferation that starred Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston. “A User’s Guide” is one of a number of new plays that are based on the Madoff scandal, including Deb Margolin’s “Imagining Madoff,” Steven Levenson’s “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin” and Amanda Peet’s “The Commons of Pensacola.”
Directed by Michole Biancosino, “A User’s Guide” begins at the convict’s death; Madoff is escorted to Hell and given a tour by a working-class New Yorker unsubtly named Verge (David Deblinger, “The Sopranos”), in a nod to the Roman poet Virgil, the guide to the Underworld in Dante’s “Inferno.” As Madoff encounters a wide range of Hell’s denizens (all played by Eric Sutton and Polly Lee) including Josef Mengele and 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, he must face his misdeeds and question if his life was worth living.
In an interview, Biancosino told The Jewish Week that Madoff was the “embodiment of the ruthlessness of the American Dream.” In directing the play, she said that she was influenced by New York Times journalist Diana Henriques’ best-selling book, “The Wizard of Lies,” which is slated to be turned into an HBO movie starring Robert DeNiro as Madoff. Henriques has suggested that the Madoff scandal was Shakespearean in the scope of its tragedy.
While Madoff is clearly the villain of Blessing’s play, Biancosino noted that the drama asks searching questions about our society’s worship of wealth. In one particularly revealing scene, she said, two stockbrokers fawn over Madoff for his chicanery, and laud him for diverting attention from even larger crimes perpetrated by the banking industry.
While Madoff may have been an icon of the excesses of capitalism, Biancosino concluded, the play is ultimately about “who we trust, and how we run our whole economy. The bank laws that allowed him to rob so many haven’t been changed.”
“A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff” runs at Atlantic Stage II, 330 W. 16th St., through Sept. 28. Performance times vary, but are typically Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and weekends at 2 p.m. There is no performance on Yom Kippur. For tickets, $25, call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.projectytheatre.org.