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Sabbath's Theater

A person wrapped in a flag

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John Turturro (Photo: Monique Carboni)


Sabbath's Theater


Reviewed by David Schultz


The first thing you hear as the lights dim are a couple in the throes of ecstatic sex. The final image at the end of this one act play is seeing 64-year-old Mickey Sabbath (John Turturro) naked as a jaybird swathed in an American flag. The hour and forty-minute play between those two events attempts to cram Philip Roth's boundary-breaking 1995, 450-page novel into a somewhat cohesive shape for the stage.


The adaption, written by Ariel Levy and John Turturro, lifts dialogue verbatim from the novel, putting it on the lips of the three actors on stage. The play's ever-changing, non-linear perspective is complex and at times disorienting. But the sheer perfection and commitment by the three actors on stage give full dimensions to the shifting characters on display.


Our anti-hero, Mickey Sabbath, is an emotionally soulless degenerate. He gave up his middling career as a puppeteer, compounded by an unfulfilled romance. Twice married, he ended up working as an arts teacher which ended badly. A sex scandal with a young student put his marriage on the rocks and left him unmoored. This scandal, commingled with his unresolved issues with his deceased mother, and the death of his older brother who was killed in an airplane during the height of W.W.II, add to his disturbed mindset. The sense of Sabbath's ever-encroaching mortality makes his anger and heightened sexual desires boil over.


It is fairly obvious this man is a miscreant who covers his inner pain and suffering with no thought of who he destroys in his path. His mistress, a sexually voracious Croatian woman named Drenka (Elizabeth Marvel) satisfies his deviant needs. Marvel, a mesmerizing actress, plays all the female roles, including Sabbath's two ex-wives, his long-suffering mother, and a young woman he attempts to molest on a park bench. When Drenka dies, Sabbath is driven into manic despair that mingles with his innate narcissistic behavior.


A person and person sitting on a floor

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Elizabeth Marvel, John Turturro (Photo: Monique Carboni)


The additional actor onstage (Jason Kravits) portrays all manner of characters: Sabbath's brother; a sad sack on a subway train; a reporter; and most movingly his Cousin Fish, an ancient family member in the throes of dementia.


Many scenes are spoken directly toward the audience, and much has been made of the savage, lascivious behavior of Roth's libidinous characters. But oddly what transpires in the novel comes across as rather tame in this production, a thinner distillation of the original raw material.


Two men sitting on chairs

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Jason Kravits, John Turturro (Photo: Monique Carboni)



In retrospect this overly cerebral approach keeps the audience at a certain distance. This works in conflict with the galvanizing emotional intensity of Mr. Turturro's performance. The fiery connection with Ms. Marvel onstage is a master class in performance. But the play in its nonlinear hop-scotch manner is lopsided and disorienting.



There are naughty things that transpire within its scenes of deviation; some actually are amusing, but not nearly as shocking and disturbing as the originaL novel. The extremely minimal black box staging by Arnulfo Maldonado gives one a sense of an actor's studio workshop exercise. Jeff Croiter's lighting design is appropriately dark and eerie. Director Jo Bonney has given the production a seamless ghostly sense of displacement with time shifting elegance -- the overarching sense of this drama is of a ghost story, which in retrospect it actually is. Projections are mostly low-key, with a quirky, snarky surprise given vivid life by Erik Sanko's shadow puppet creations. One visual in particular is perfectly in sync with the famous ejaculation scene that is amusing yet simultaneously disturbing.


To get a sense of what Philip Roth was so successful in achieving in his scathing novel, this brave attempt should hopefully give the audience a chance to reach out and read original novel.


Sabbath's Theater

Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre

at The Pershing Square Signature Center

480 West 42nd St.  

Running Through December 17th