‘Sabbath’s Theater’ Off Broadway Review: John Turturro Wrestles With Philip Roth

In its recent article on Ariel Levy and John Turturro’s stage adaptation of Philip Roth’s “Sabbath’s Theater,” the New York Times called it the novelist’s “raunchiest book.” Why stop there? Let’s also call Mickey Sabbath the novelist’s most repellent character.

The Old Gray Lady’s opinion of Roth’s novel seems to have mellowed over the years. Upon its publication, the book critic there called it “distasteful and disingenuous.”

Published in 1995, Roth’s novel catalogues the number of ways in which one character can offend: Mickey Sabbath and his mistress, Drenka, indulge in golden-shower sex, he masturbates over and urinates on her grave, he is fired from his teaching job for having phone sex with a student and he sexually molests a young woman while performing his hand-puppet theater routine, which involves all sorts of ways of making his finger synonymous with his penis, which he never stops talking about. It goes without saying that the character is chronically unfaithful to his two wives, both of whom end up hating his guts. No wonder Mickey Sabbath is on a picaresque journey to kill himself.

To paraphrase what they once said about Stanley Kubrick’s film adaption of “Lolita,” how did they ever make a play out of “Sabbath’s Theater”? Levy and Turturro’s adaptation of the Roth novel opened Thursday at the Signature Center under the auspices of the New Group. The 450-plus-page novel has been reduced to a 100-minute one-act play, and it manages to leave out only one of my favorite scenes from the original source: When Mickey makes one of his repeated visits to the cemetery to piss all over Drenka’s grave, he ends up being apprehended by her adult son, now a cop.

One great benefit of seeing “Sabbath’s Theater” brought to the theater is that I had never realized how Shakespearean the novel is. It’s not just the graveyard scenes, but the overall outrageousness of Mickey’s language and behavior.

Turturro plays Mickey, and while he has never had the lightest touch as an actor, he brings a benign levity to the tale that sometimes runs counter to the spirit of Roth’s novel. Roth dares us to find anything admirable in his hero. Turturro, on the other hand, seduces us into liking the guy.

This stage adaptation also reduces the shock value of the novel by having Mickey speak directly to us, and when he is joined on stage by Jason Kravits and Elizabeth Marvel (both of whom play a variety of roles), the characters played by these actors are often recalling experiences that took place years ago.

Most prominent is the scene in which Drenka and Mickey pee on each other. Marvel is so magnificent here that that she may cause a few theatergoers to jump over to the scatological side of sex. Better than Roth’s novel, the idea of having Marvel play all the female characters in Mickey’s life is a masterstroke of casting and direction. Especially revealing are the mercurial slides in time, from Mickey having mind-blowing sex with Drenka to Mickey getting into a mental fight with Mom, also played by Marvel.

Kravits is chameleon-like in his many portrayals of the men in Mickey’s life. Especially memorable is his outrage when Mickey attempts to seduce the guy’s daughter.

Although director Jo Bonney sometimes allows Turturro to get a bit cuddly in his talks to the audience, she doesn’t block Marvel and Kravits from unloading big time on Mickey. Far too cordial, however, is the decision to have Mickey’s ejaculation scene conveyed through Erik Sanko’s animation designs as projected on the back wall of Arnulfo Maldonado’s box set. It’s an outrageously funny moment in the novel, but not a charming one.

While I missed the graveyard urination scene, there’s a brief moment in the play that I don’t remember from the novel. And yet, it sums up better than all the aforementioned sex scenes the essence of Roth. It comes late in the play when Mickey recalls, as a boy, how much his mother was repulsed by the way in which his grandmother devoured an ear of corn with her ill-fitting dentures. Mom wanted to vomit. Mickey, on the other hand, found true delight in Grandma’s gusto. In that moment, Turturro not only captures Roth’s lust for life — he captures the force which fuels that lust.

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