Philip Roth’s 1995 Rabelaisian novel Sabbath’s Theater would seem a strange choice for stage adaptation both as it is considered Roth’s raunchiest – if not filthiest – book and it moves around a great deal to places in New England, New York, New Jersey and Venice, Italy. The stage adaptation by journalist Ariel Levy and actor-director John Turturro who also stars in The New Group’s production at the Pershing Square Signature Center is not really a play but a staged reading. Performed by Turturro and two actors, Elizabeth Marvel and Jason Kravits, taking all the other parts, this very doubling reinforces the feeling that this is not a fully realized play.
The adaptors have revealed that no words were added to the Roth text which means the theater version is simply an edit of the book to be spoken by three actors. The actors narrate themselves in both the first and the third person continuing to make it feel like a book reading rather than a stage worthy project. In addition, Turturro does not fit the description of protagonist, anti-hero Mickey Sabbath, retired puppeteer who founded Sabbath’s Indecent Theater in the East Village: even the script describes him as heavy-set and white-bearded, neither which describes the actor. The Sabbath we see on stage is wiry, and grey haired and full of vim and vigor. However, a friend of Roth’s, Turturro who also played Zorba the Greek in the Encores! revival of the Kander and Ebb musical, appears to be the go-to-guy for Dionysian characters.
When 64-year-old Sabbath’s mistress of 13 years dies around the same time as he loses his job at a small New England college due to sexual misconduct with a 20-year-old female student for which his wife throws him out, he plunges into a headlong spree encountering people from his past. It begins when he is notified by his old friend and former producer Norman Cowan that their mutual friend Lincoln Gelman has committed suicide, and he comes to Manhattan to attend his funeral.
On the way he recalls his sexual encounters with his married mistress Drenka, a Croatian Catholic, his visit to her in the hospital when she is dying of cancer, his last fight with his second wife Roseanna, and his arguments with his late mother Yetta. While at Norman’s Central Park West apartment, he rifles the drawers of his daughter Debby and wife Michelle, attempts to seduce Michelle and antagonizes Norman. Ultimately, he heads for the Jewish cemetery where both his parents and grandparents are buried, and visits his 100-year-old Cousin Fish near the Jersey shore where he grew up. All this time he is planning to commit suicide but has too much life bubbling inside of him to go through with it. He also retells an unbelievable story of being arrested as a street artist when he attempted to undress a Columbia co-ed on 116th Street and Broadway.
As adapted by Levy and Turturro, the play talks a great deal about sex without being erotic, death without being morbid, and living life to the fullest without making a very good case for Sabbath’s path to fulfillment. However, the lascivious and libidinous Turturro brims over with high spirits and Dionysian lack of restraint. He is a Bacchanalian figure taking his pleasure where he finds it, and knowing the risks, continues to challenge the rules of civility. He gets inside of world-weary Mickey Sabbath without ever looking like we imagine the character to be.
Much more impressive is the ever-remarkable Elizabeth Marvel as six characters, each different and each with her own voice and stance. As Drenka she is every bit as sexually free as Sabbath, while as A.B. Crawford, director of the New Jersey cemetery that he visits she is both androgynous and taciturn. As Norman’s wife Michelle she is seductive while being prim and as a Girl on the subway who may or may not be a drama student she is both poetic and melodious. They are all remarkable characterizations, more so for being played by the same actress in the same play, one after the other.
Given the short end of the stick with his encounters with Sabbath, Jason Kravits plays the other five men many of whom are in the same situation as each other: Drenka’s husband Matija, Scott Lewis, one of her lovers, Sabbath’s old friend Norman, a Bum on the subway, and Cousin Fish. All of whom are bested by Sabbath, one way or another. In each encounter, Sabbath wins out either by his wiles or treachery.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design could not be more minimalist using only chairs and a table at various times for the indoor scenes. The projections by Alex Basco Koch are more specific but extremely stylized and lacking in atmosphere. Maldonado’s costumes offer subtle changes for each character making them all look different, with wig, hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas, mainly for Marvel to play the various women. Jeff Croiter’s lighting is almost always dark and moody, making it seem that Sabbath lives in a midnight world.
Ariel Levy and John Turturro’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel is an ambitious attempt to put on the stage an unlikely work of fiction. As directed by Jo Bonney, it will hold your attention at all times due to its outrageousness and daring. However, it still has the lack of transitions that are more accessible on the printed page than in the theater. Just like the novel, there are those who will love it and those who will hate it. Philip Roth’s legion of fans will not want to miss it; others not so much.
Sabbath’s Theater (extended through December 17, 2023)
The New Group
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission