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Sabbath's Theater

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 2, 2023

Jason Kravits, Elizabeth Marvel, and John Turturro
Photo by Monique Carboni
Philip Roth's 1995 novel "Sabbath's Theater" is a sprawling, ambitious work that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Award. Arguably, it is also one of Roth's most lascivious works (second only to Portnoy's Complaint), and when it was first published, critics were divided on its literary merits. While the novel spans about 450 pages, Ariel Levy and John Turturro's stage adaptation runs a comparatively fleet 100 minutes. Audiences attending the current production, presented by The New Group, will surely be equally divided. Some individuals may be repelled by the steady stream of debauchery in its myriad forms, and others may be moved by the play's contemplation of love and loss. It is unlikely, however, that this Sabbath's Theater will provoke boredom.

In an interview with the New York Times, Turturro, who also stars as the central character and narrator Mickey Sabbath, said that the novel lends itself to theatricalization. Comparing Sabbath to a stand-up comedian, Turturro said, "When he's on a rant you go from Lorena Bobbitt to Mussolini to Ibsen to Macbeth, all in the same breath." Additionally, there is a Shakespearean quality to the 64-year-old character, who seems to embrace the notion that "all the world's a stage" and is a cross between Hamlet and Lear. Sabbath is consumed by suicidal thoughts, and at one point, he rails at the cosmos as if channeling Lear on the heath:

"What in all of creation is as nasty and strong as this God who gives life? Oh the timidity!

The cowardice! To everyone I have ever horrified, to the appalled who'd consider me a dangerous man, loathsome, degenerate and gross. Not at all! My failure is failing to have gone far enough! My failure is not having gone further!"

Sabbath is also a product of the theatre. He is a former director and worked for many years as a puppeteer. When arthritis crippled his fingers, he turned to teaching. A phone-sex scandal with one of his women students led to his dismissal from the academy. He also has a penchant for prostitutes, and he has been married twice. His first wife, Nikki (Elizabeth Marvel, who plays all of the women in Sabbath's narrative), is an actress who mysteriously disappeared. His second wife, Roseanna, is a recovering alcoholic and the two have a tempestuous marriage.

The love of Sabbath's erotic life is Drenka, who runs a country inn with her husband Matijia (Jason Kravits, who plays all of the other male characters). Even after her death from cancer, Sabbath still receives sexual gratification (including at her grave) from her memory.

The ghosts and demons of Sabbath's past continue to torment him, and he believes his mother's specter has urged him to suicide. But even as he is wracked with memories of his dead brother, who was killed in World War II, Sabbath is not above flirting with his old friend's wife and stealing a pair of panties belonging to the man's daughter.

Having read most of Roth's novels, I am impressed with the ways in which Levy and Turturro capture the writer's spirit. They have distilled the book to its essence. This, however, has both positive and adverse effects. The adaptation captures the titillating and shocking elements of the plot, and there is a great deal of humor mined from the original. Yet, even though the script is composed of Roth's own words throughout, the extended ruminations and thick descriptions are (as they must be) lost. Debatably, this is one of the reasons I suspect Roth's novels (except in a few cases) have resisted successful film versions. A condensed version of a Roth novel does not do full justice to the genius behind the work. Sometimes I felt as if watching a dramatized Cliffs Notes.

Still, with direction by Jo Bonney, the performances are uniformly excellent. Turturro gives a fearless, no-holds-barred performance. While he may get physically naked, that is nothing compared to the emotional layers he peels off in the course of the performance. Sabbath is a complex and not altogether likeable man, and Turturro does not sentimentalize the character.

Marvel is, as always, outstanding. She is especially moving as Drenka, who is imperious and complicated, but also deeply compelling. In one of the final scenes, Marvel ultimately makes the Croatian innkeeper haunting and sympathetic. In several less showy roles, Kravits does excellent work as well, particularly as Norman, who doesn't bat an eye when Sabbath mistakenly plays footsies with him instead of Norman's wife.

The production benefits from a streamlined design. Making use of a few pieces of furniture, striking lighting, and numerous projections, the play captures the sweeping shifts through place and time in Sabbath's memory. (Arnulfo Maldonado designed the sets and costumes, Jeff Croiter the lighting, Mikaal Sulaiman the sound, Alex Basco Koch the projections, and Erik Sanko created often hilarious shadow puppetry.)

To the credit of the adapters and designers, there is a good deal of theatricality in this excursion into Roth's world. Nevertheless, there's a certain amount of irony in the notion that Sabbath's Theater may be best suited to the page and not the stage.

Sabbath's Theater
Through December 17, 2023
The New Group
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: