Saturday, September 21, 2013



Pulitzer Prize-winner
A User's Guide to Hell, 
Featuring Bernard Madoff
At Atlantic Stage II through Sep 28

The title, "A User's Guide to Hell" does not, I think, refer to a User Guide, like you might have for a camera or computer program, but rather to the character "Verge" who guides the User, Bernie Madoff, during his visit using Hell (Hell, with a capital H).

Now, we're guessing and questioning here in this article, because this seems to be a play and a production, which is designed to invite the audience to figure out what it means and to ask more questions than it answers (actually, even the cast agrees with that... as they commented in an after-play discussion)

Edward James Hyland as Bernard Madoff and David Deblinger as Verge
photo credit Jimmy Ryan


First of all, what is this "Hell" in the play?  There are several possible ways for an audience to understand Hell when it occurs in a play:
  1. The author's understanding of the real Hell of the bible or a Christian theology
  2. The author's imagination of what a "hell," something like that in the bible, might be
  3. The author's invention of a hell, co-opting the notion from the bible
  4. The author's revisionist version of hell
  5. A completely fictional place called "hell" just for the hell of it
  6. The author's attempt to give real world places/events a biblical veneer by saying "this" is (my idea of) "hell".
  7. The author's description of his character's idea of hell
  8. Something else

Well, I think in this case Hell is something else. It has elements of number 4 and number 7, but I think it's best understood as a version of a dream. Suppose someone (not necessary you) had a dream. It might go something like this: Bernie Madoff finds himself in Hell. The Hell is a strange place, like Manhattan, but he is in the street, and all the buildings are closed. No doors. He is guided around his Hell by a guy named Verge, surrounded by people he can't see, and able to get from one place on Manhattan to another in Manhattan, (and nowhere else at all) only by going through stench filled, smoke filled portals. At each place he comes to he meets another resident of Hell. At first, Madoff wants to be punished, but as he finds more and more of the residents, far more evil and with far more deaths on their soul than he has, (each content in their own rationalizations) he begins to develop a rationalization for his actions and finds a way to get to the entrance of heaven.

Nothing in the play identifies this as a dream, but the play has the logic of a dream more than it has the (usual) logic/structure of a play.

The play is very interesting and sparks many questions about right and wrong, good and evil, human behavior.

There are strong performances by the principals. Edward James Hyland did make you believe that Madoff himself was up there. (The play, by the way, though not explicitly I think, did suggest the connection between his name and the fact that he "made off" with many people's wealth.)

David Deblinger was a fine and whimsical/puck-like/spirited Guide to Hell.

Erika Rose and Eric Sutton played multiple roles as (all) the residents of Hell. They did nicely, each best in one of their characters, and well in the others. These are perhaps the most difficult roles in the play, and I suspect a virtuoso performance making every resident of Hell come brilliantly alive (by just the two actors!) would be very exciting.

But what the production lacked, I think, was style. The set design was competent, functional, simple (cheap), and consistent with the play. The costumes not so much: as the title character, Verge deserved a more spirited and suggestive outfit, and Bernie Madoff, described as very well and expensively dressed by one character, looked quite shabby. The physical life lacked the sharp precision and inventiveness that was called for; it was, in fact, sometimes quite clumsy.

With a theme that seemed intended to give the audience an active role in thinking about the piece, "lack of style" may have been a deliberate choice for the style (along with lack of money), but I think it was the wrong choice. Lee Blessing's plays have ideas, wit, irony and humor, but they can seem less than obviously dramatic, and require a terrific production (like Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston in A Walk in the Woods) to bring them actively to life.

All in all, this is a valuable and potentially important play to see and reflect on. I would hope this production would continue to develop into a fully realized production.

A User's Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff
by Lee Blessing
Directed by  Michole Biancosino

Edward James Hyland - as Bernard Madoff
David Deblinger - as Verge
Erika Rose and Eric Sutton - as Residents of Hell


Lee Blessing discusses A User's Guide to Hell, featuring Bernard Madoff

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