Philip Roth wasn’t terribly well-served by adaptation in his lifetime. (The 1972 film version of Portnoy’s Complaint, his most infamous novel, is unspeakably bad and helped set a certain tone.) But things are looking up. HBO’s 2020 miniseries of his prescient The Plot Against America was properly unsettling, and featured a solid turn by John Turturro as a quisling rabbi. The actor and writer Ariel Levy have now adapted what Roth called his favorite work, 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater, for a New Group stage production. It begins with Turturro and costar Elizabeth Marvel noisily having sex–in other words, off to a good start for a Roth adaptation.
But it’s the memory of passion that Mickey Sabbath is reliving. An arthritic 64, his slightly renowned career as an avant-garde puppeteer behind him due in part to a phone-sex scandal with a student, Sabbath dwells in the past, mostly his athletic romps with his Croatian girlfriend Drenka (Marvel, with a guttural accent, an assortment of malapropisms, and a try-anything bawdy outlook, in the showiest and funniest of the feminine parts she portrays). However Drenka, too, is gone, taken by cancer. Adrift in cold New England, and trailing two ex-wives (one long missing) and bleak prospects Sabbath accepts an invitation to stay in New York City with a more prosperous friend (Jason Kravits, adroitly playing all the other male parts) when a mutual acquaintance dies. His college-age daughter provides temptation.
Contempt, though, is harder than an erection for the misanthropic Sabbath. For an intermissionless 100 minutes Turturro goes all the way here. Some of it is physical; you sense early on that full frontal is in the cards, and so it is, but before the shock of naked Barton Fink there’s also masturbation (it is Philip Roth, after all), cleverly, disquietingly mimed ejaculation (in a graveyard no less), lots of scatological language to turn the air blue in the black box theater, and he and Marvel’s Drenka having a go at, umm, “water sports.” But more of it is psychological, a stripping down of the soul, as the exhausted Sabbath considers suicide. His mind wanders to his childhood, beset by his hectoring mother (another great Marvel guise) and trying to recreate happier times with his brother, killed in World War II. Sabbath is an appalling person; Turturro’s earthy, seething, explosive performance whittles him away to a bloody core. You feel there’s someone writhing in the wreckage.
Much of the dialogue, and Sabbath’s relentless running monologue, is taken straight from the text. What could have been a live audiobook or Audible theater production has a life of its own, however, under Jo Bonney’s astute direction. Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Alex Basco Koch’s projections orient us in time and place as Sabbath free-ranges around his life, with Erik Sanko’s shadow puppets underscoring his former glories and unspeakable acts. Roth might have appreciated this Sabbath’s Theater. It’s no small accomplishment that you can feel his presence in the room as it unfolds.