Theater review by Raven Snook
Ariel Levy and John Turturro's stage adaptation of Sabbath's Theater begins with a bang: The lecherous, over-the-hill puppeteer Mickey Sabbath (Turturro) and his insatiable Croatian mistress, Drenka (Elizabeth Marvel), schtup with abandon in the opening scene. But the play goes flaccid fast. Despite the transgressiveness of the source material—the late Philip Roth's scabrous novel, considered a masterpiece by some and purely masturbatory by others—the play is an impotent affair, with three excellent actors working awfully hard to screw inert vignettes into a whole.
Turturro was a longtime friend of Roth’s who almost starred in a solo version of Portnoy's Complaint, and his loyalty is evident. Long passages from the novel are delivered directly to the audience, like a stand-up comic’s monologues, but the same writing that is outrageously fun and raw on the page tends to fall flat in this form. The play’s two-person scenes are more engaging—especially when the marvelous Marvel is involved—but distilling a time-hopping, 400-page exploration of mortality and immorality into a coherent 100 minutes is folly. When Drenka's death inspires Mickey to go on an odyssey through his sordid past, Marvel and Jason Kravits incarnate a disparate array of unloved ones from his narcissistic life: his dead mother, his alcoholic wife, a wary friend, an ancient cousin and more. It's tough to follow and even tougher to swallow.
Director Jo Bonney does her best to keep the pace from flagging. Alex Basco Koch's projections and Erik Sanko's shadow-puppet animation, a clever nod to the antihero's métier, liven the almost-bare stage and add some louchely humorous images, as when Mickey's ejaculate cascades down Drenka's grave. Sexuality is front and center here, and by the end, Turturro has even given us the full Mickey. But he only exposes the body of this tortured and terrible miscreant, and not the character's soul.
Sabbath's Theater. The New Group (Off Broadway). By Ariel Levy and John Turturro. Directed by Jo Bonney. With Turturro, Elizabeth Marvel, Jason Kravits. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.
Sabbath’s Theater | Photograph: Courtesy Monique Carboni