Mickey Sabbath, the 64-year-old self-absorbed, lecherous narrator and protagonist of Philip Roth’s 1995 novel, had a career as a puppeteer until he got arthritis, and there is a moment early on in this stage adaptation of “Sabbath’s Theater” by Ariel Levy and John Turturro that employs puppetry — in a way that, I feel safe to say, would not win a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation.
As Mickey, Turturro is at the gravesite of his long-time mistress. “In 13 years, I never tired of looking down your blouse or up your skirt,” he says. Then, his back mercifully to the audience, he masturbates beside her tombstone – the climax of which is graphically depicted streaming from his shadow on the screen behind him; a work of shadow puppetry.
If I can’t dismiss “Sabbath’s Theater,” it’s largely because of the glimpses of Philip Roth’s mischievous wit, craft and insight that struggle their way through the over-the-top ribaldry, and because of the exceptional three-member cast. I’m less impressed with Turturro, frankly, than Elizabeth Marvel and Jason Kravits, who portray a total of fourteen characters, including the relatives, old acquaintances, wives and whores who haunt Mickey Sabbath, or whom he betrays.
But that scene at the gravesite is just one of the many reasons why, of Roth’s thirty books, “Sabbath’s Theater” is low down on my list of those I’d want to see in 3D.
Mickey Sabbath views himself, in his most grandiose moments, as a King Lear figure; he even at one point quotes from Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” But he acknowledges that others see him in a far less flattering light, and he doesn’t disagree.
“You think like a failure,” scolds the ghost of his mother.
“I am a failure,” Mickey replies. “How else should I think? I paid the full price for art, only I haven’t made any.”
His deterioration and despair have their roots many decades earlier, as we eventually learn, when his big brother Morty was killed in combat during World War II. But they fully flowered after the death of Drenka, the sexually adventurous Croatian immigrant with whom he had a long-term adulterous affair, whom he praises as “a respectable woman unlike any woman I had known outside a whorehouse.”
The play begins when she is still alive, with the two of them in the dark, moaning. The lights come on, they’re on top of one another, and she gives him an ultimatum: If they are to stay together, he cannot sleep with any other woman. This baffles Sabbath because, for one, they are both married to other people, and she’s not proposing they leave their spouses: “You want monogamy outside of marriage and adultery inside marriage.”
Then Drenka reveals she has cancer.
Her death provokes a series of episodes recalling/encountering people from his past – and people who will soon be in his past — during which we piece together that Mickey Sabbath is not a likeable man. After his first wife abruptly disappeared (presumably a suicide, although they never found her body), Sabbath cheated on his second wife Roseanna while sponging off her. She was the sole breadwinner. He was unemployable not just because of his arthritis; his second career in charge of a college puppetry program was cut short after a phone sex scandal involving one of his students.
An old friend named Norman invites him to the funeral of a mutual acquaintance, and is so alarmed by Sabbath’s appearance, that he invites him to stay over, and sends Sabbath’s clothes to the cleaners, and buys him new ones. Sabbath rewards this generosity with betrayal (“I’d never lost the simple pleasure of making people uncomfortable, comfortable people especially, he tells us.) He uses Norman’s 19-year-old daughters panties as a masturbatory aid, and tries to seduce Norman’s wife: “Still a chance for the old juicy way of life to make one big, last thumping stand against the inescapable rectitude, not to mention the boredom, of death…. “
This juxtaposition – intermingling – of sex and death, of obscenity and grief, is central to the play, and arguably at the core of much of Roth’s oeuvre, although a writer who produced “Portney’s Complaint” and “American Pastoral” and “The Plot Against America” can’t be summed up so simply.
But the balance is skewed in this adaptation. I found the explicit scenes more often off-putting than amusing or alluring. There are some poignant moments, especially when Marvel is portraying Drenka, and Kravits is playing Sabbath’s 100-year-old cousin Fish. But there are fewer than intended. It’s admirable that Tuturro is willing to play such disagreeable characters; I have a vivid memory of his taking the stops out for the Hitler character in a production of Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” But he is perhaps too persuasive here. There is a scene clearly meant to be climactic, in which he takes off all his clothes and wraps his nude body in the American flag that was wrapped around his brother’s coffin, intending to jump into the ocean and drown. It’s theatrical, and a show of vulnerability, sure, but so self-consciously so that it felt like a manipulation – not just by Turturro the actor/writer and director Jo Bonney, but by the character, too self-pitying to be pitied. It reminded me that, in the puppetry arts, puppeteers are called manipulators (no disparity intended; that’s just the lingo.) Could this be the reason why Roth gave the character this occupation?
When Philip Roth died at the age of 85 in 2018, famed literary critic Harold Bloom called “Sabbath’s Theater” one of Roth’s two greatest novels (along with “American Pastoral”); they have “a controlled frenzy, a high imaginative ferocity, and a deep perception of America in the days of its decline.”
Little of that comes blazingly through in the New Group production. But there are moments when his perverse wit and erudition do make their way unscathed and scathing from page to stage. Most of them are tinged with one of Sabbath’s two obsessions, sex or death.
Here he is contemplating suicide: “Mishima. Rothko. Hemingway. Pavese. Gorky. Primo Levi. Hart Crane. Walter Benjamin. Peerless bunch. Nothing dishonorable signing on there. Faulkner as good as killed himself with booze. As did Ava Gardner. Blessed Ava. Wasn’t much about men could astonish Ava. Dead at sixty-two, two years younger than me. The list grows more inspiring by the year. I’d be the first puppeteer.”
On Lorena Bobbitt, who had cut off her husband’s penis. He hated that Roseanna and “her progressive friends had made a heroine” out of Bobbett, and is taken aback to learn that Roseanna has fantasized about doing the same to Sabbath, with a scissors. “Really Rosie, life isn’t just a series of pranks. Remember how Nora does it in A Doll’s House? She doesn’t cut off Torvald’s dick––she walks out the fucking door. I don’t believe you necessarily have to be a nineteenth-century Norwegian to walk out a door. Doors continue to exist …”
Funny, albeit likely to rile “progressive friends,” but there’s no riff in the play that can compete with the one in Roth’s novel “Operation Shylock” on another theatrical subject –the two popular hits by songwriter Irving Berlin, Easter Parade and White Christmas: “The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ—down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet!”
New Group at Signature through December 17
Running time: 100 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $37 to $112
Adapted from the Philip Roth novel by Ariel Levy and John Turturro
Directed by Jo Bonney
Scenic and costume design by Arnulfo Maldonado, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, sound design by Mikaal Suleiman, projection design by Alex Basco Koch, shadow puppet design by Erik Sanko, wig, hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas
Cast: Jason Kravitz, Elizabeth Marvel, John Turturro