November 2, 2013: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler.

Philip Roth (1933-2018) was an author of considerable stature, output and talent, who nonetheless aggravated a great many people. A Jew who came of age during the Depression and World War II, his most familiar male characters are famous for their Judaism, obsession with sex and death, and misogyny—in equal measure. Critics felt he fed the fires of women-hating with horrific renditions of overbearing, castrating mothers and dependent, clingy women. Add to that charges of being a Jewish antisemite and you have someone who doled out red meat to the lions with a mastery of ferocious humor. He received multiple honors in his eighty-five years on this earth with a number of his works turned into successful screenplays, yet his work has rarely been transformed onto the stage.

Now, six years after Roth’s death, we have Sabbath’s Theater presented by the New Group at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street. Based on his National Book Award winning 1995 novel, it has been adapted by New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy and the actor John Turturro, who takes on the role of Sabbath himself. On a bare playing space with a minimum of furniture and props, Turturro addresses the audience for much of the time, articulating Roth’s prose straight from the book. Rounding out the cast are Elizabeth Marvel and Jason Kravits inhabiting all the other characters in Sabbath’s life, totaling sixteen, and directed with exquisite attention to detail by Jo Bonney. It’s a journey worth taking if (and it’s a big if) you can put up with as exasperating a person as Mickey Sabbath.

Jason Kravitz and John Turturro in "Sabbath's Theater" (photo by Monique Carboni).

An overbearing intellectual who never got the attention he feels he deserved Sabbath is a failure. He doesn’t blame anybody more than himself, but that’s not enough to make him dismount his high horse. He’s disloyal, disassociated, discontent, disturbed and ultimately distraught. Suicidal, actually and not a lot of fun to be around. Of course, when enacted by someone as gifted as the perfectly cast Turturro, there are definite pleasures to be found being in his company for 100 minutes.

In terms of plot, Roth keeps things simple and uncomplicated. Sabbath is an unemployed puppeteer with delusions of grandeur (“He’d paid the full price for art, only he hadn’t made any”). He finds his loveless marriage at an end when his wife finally finds the courage to free herself from him. At the same time his lover is dying of cancer. He sets about to find some peace and maybe a few answers along the way on where it all went wrong. In the course of the proceedings, we are treated to some priceless language (“He inherited from his mother the ability to never get over anything”). Sabbath is a singular creativity from the mind of a writer who can make jerking off over a tombstone, as he does here, a grimly comic event.

Sabbath is deluded in that he thinks he has a soft spot for women, but nothing can hide the misogyny of the character (or Roth for that matter). Jokingly referred to as “a penis with a thesaurus,” it’s no joke that he believed women were the weaker sex. When he was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2011, Carmen Calill, one of its three judges, resigned in protest. “I don't rate him as a writer at all,” she said.

Philip Roth circa the 1960s (photo by Bernard Gotfryd).

At the beginning of the play, the stylized prose takes some getting used to. In their efforts to be pure to his words, Levy and Turturro have lifted from Roth directly which presents a challenge, for Turturro especially, to make it sound spoken and not written. For a time, it feels like someone reading from their favorite book passage out loud, which isn’t theatre. Along the way, the feeling fades, and it becomes easier to accept the language, aided immeasurably by some of the fine acting on display.

Jason Kravits is a revelation in the distinct characterizations he constructs, none more so than Fish, a 100-year-old relative of Sabbath’s who is blessed with one of Roth’s best scenes. Elizabeth Marvel manages to be equally individualized with the radically different women she plays but does favor a general smile that seems to hide rather than illuminate her emotions. It’s something pervasive in this actress who is fully capable of doing more with less. After all, the job is to not let us see the work.

Elizabeth Marvel and John Turturro in "Sabbath's Theater" (photo by Monique Carboni).

As for John Turturro, he does the near impossible making us care for such a careless man (“I never lost the simple pleasure of making people uncomfortable,” Sabbath says). A labor of love for the actor, he speaks in a recent New York Times interview of his friendship of twenty-five years with Philip Roth and how he is honoring him with this play. According to the same article, “Sabbath's Theater was Roth’s favorite of his own books, the one he chose to read from at his 80th birthday celebration.”

Onstage almost the entire play, Turturro is a powerhouse who doesn’t push a thing. He is living this man in a performance of intense concentration and it is a joy to watch him strip himself down—literally—to the essentially joyless person that Sabbath is. Except when he’s having sex, of course.

Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic and costume design are economical and spot on. The lighting by Jeff Croiter, whose work is also on display currently in Gutenberg! The Musical!, does a great job invoking many different spaces both indoors and out. The sophisticated sound is well conceived by Mikaal Sulaiman. And a special shout out to the purposely primitive projections and shadow puppetry by Alex Basco Koch and Erik Sanko, respectively.

At one point, Sabbath refers to his life as a puppeteer as something of a sacred thing. “You have your hand right where the heart is.” Cheers to Levy and Turturro and director Jo Bonney for having their hearts in the right place with this worthy production of Sabbath’s Theater.

Ron Fassler is an author and theatre critic and member of the Drama Desk Organization.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."