Scott Klavan: Sabbath’s Theater
adapted from the novel by Philip Roth
by Ariel Levy & John Turturro
The New Group
Off-Broadway review—October 21, 2023
By Scott Klavan
Mickey Sabbath is a dirty man in the stage adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater, getting a limited Off-Broadway run by the New Group at the Signature Theater on W. 42nd St. But life is dirty. As Roth saw it, as John Turturro and Ariel Roth wrote it for theater, and as Turturro plays Sabbath and fellow actors Elizabeth Marvel and Jason Kravits play multiple characters alongside him. It’s a life of masturbation and lying, selfishness, and cruelty, and unendingly attempted, unendingly thwarted searches for touch and connection. Roth was often upbraided by his critics for his sexualized books and stories, all the way back to Portnoy’s Complaint and The Breast to The Professor of Desire, up to Sabbath’s Theater, one of the last of his uproariously comedic foul-mouthed eroticized works; he aggravated feminists, and other self-righteous prudish censors, but managed to luckily die and escape being officially cancelled. On stage, Turturro and Levy have loyally and lovingly—if that’s the word, given how Sabbath himself fails at faithful love with his ex-wife, has his most meaningful relationship with mistress Drenka taken from him by her fatal untimely cancer, and how the death of his older brother in World War II crushed his mother and leaves Sabbath with unhealed scars of unrequited love—adapted and presented Roth’s sensibility whole.
Earthy no-account Sabbath, 64 in the show, wanders around the New York area, lamenting the arthritis that caused him to give up the puppet theater he runs, a low-flying operation that disappointed his mother, and just about everyone else he knows, lusts after and tries to make his friend Norman’s wife, and masturbates on Drenka’s grave. He is a helpless slave to his selfish desires, his yearning and needs, vocally expressing griefs and gripes; a kind of reverse mensch. But he dotes on then pines for the late Drenka and his heart still broken missing his brother, plans his own death. He’s a human being.
Roth used sex and scatology as motifs, doing it from a place of deep artistry and understanding; his books meld compassionate human drama with astute biting satire. Unlike many pale attempts to flout decorum in today’s rap music, bro podcasts, and stand-up comedy: vulgarity by vulgarians. As stated in a profile of the show in the New York Times, Levy and Turturro use only Roth’s words from the book here. There is a slight set, with a few props and projections, and the theater on the second floor of the Pershing Square Signature Center, which houses three performance spaces, is kind of a rickety Off-Off Broadway house posing as an Off one. Adapting this particular Roth book, with its minor story-line featuring a bedraggled self-indulgent fuck-hound, could have been self-aggrandizing by itself: reverentially literary or braggadocios. Yet just about everything works here. The show makes you laugh and cry, it’s audacious and unapologetically passionate, grimy and in its own way, pure.
Director Jo Bonney and designers – scenic and costume Arnulfo Maldonado, Lighting Jeff Croiter, Sound Mikaal Sulaiman- use the awkward stage space in a sly, mischievously evocative way; lights, sound, video all create a subliminal feel movingly underscoring Roth’s words. Turturro is one of a long line of gentile actors playing Jews—he has done it several times, in Coen Brothers and Spike Lee films and others—but he is so great in this piece that it blows away the Sabbathean resentment this critic—an aging Jewish actor—is capable of feeling; I was left with just enjoyment. Marvel playing parts including the lusty and powerful mistress Drenka, and Sabbath’s ex-wife, and Kravits, as Sabbath’s pal Norman, his 100-year-old cousin Fish, etc, are versatile and accomplished, offering lessons in voice, movement, all forms of character acting. The performances are alluring, soft; despite the blunt raunchy subject matter, they don’t hit and overwhelm you; rather, they embody the delicacy and naïveté that underpin our crudest inept attempts at sex and relationship.
This critic attended a preview of Sabbath’s Theater; its official opening date is Nov. 2. It was listed as running 125 minutes without an intermission, but thankfully was about 15 minutes shorter, suggesting the script is being altered and revised as it goes along. As in the case of the musical of Days of Wine & Roses, reviewed in this space as an Off Broadway play, this show is presumably looking to move to Broadway, as Days recently succeeded in doing for a limited run. It will be interesting to see if Sabbath’s Theater makes it that far. This is a time of artistic repression and outright censorship, in the name of manipulative political constructs like “triggers,” “equity,” and “inclusion.” However, given how insane and barbaric the international scene has become, maybe the time is right for a show that brazenly explores, with humor and finally catharsis, our imperfection as humans, and how our base, insatiable desire for sex (not violence) may be a remedy of sorts.
Philip Roth’s books have rarely been adapted for the stage. The Times’ article mentioned that Turturro, a friend of the novelist, had previously tried to develop a solo play of Portnoy’s Complaint, but it was abandoned. There have been numerous film versions of Roth’s work, the most successful probably being Goodbye Columbus (1969), the most reviled Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), both starring Richard Benjamin. Other movies fall in-between, essentially disappointments, such as The Human Stain, Indignation and American Pastoral. Elegy (2008, based on The Dying Animal), The Ghost Writer (2011) and the HBO mini-series of The Plot Against America (2020), which also featured Turturro (fine again, as a rabbi, damnit!), were better, and I found parts of The Humbling, with Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig, hilarious; but I was about the only one. Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater has a love/hate relationship with life, the world, other people, his own body and its emanations, his dreams and failures, and certain death. The stage play dramatizes this dirty conflict we all feel but rarely admit into exaltation.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He helped to develop and directed Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth, for the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Roosevelt House in NYC. He directed Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the poet Anna Akhmatova, for the On Women Festival at Irondale Center. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. During the pandemic, Scott figured out how to direct on Zoom! Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.