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Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater might seem to defy adaptation as much as it defies propriety. In this notorious 1995 novel, the life of Mickey Sabbath, a failed puppeteer in late middle age, spills out on the page with his colourful aggravations and sexual escapades. Like so much of Roth’s fiction, the book (winner of the National Book Award) roars with the author’s force-of-nature style, both soul-baring and cacklingly funny.

The New Group production of Sabbath’s Theater channels Mickey’s irrepressible life force in a new adaptation by Ariel Levy and John Turturro. Deftly reimagined for the stage at the Signature Center, it features Turturro as the furiously ruminative Mickey, accompanied by Elizabeth Marvel and Jason Kravits in multiple roles. It’s a subtly attuned interpretation that has a way of playing out Mickey’s inner monologues and listening to them at the same time.

Mickey might strictly be considered a has-been, head of a puppet company from another era. His greater satisfaction comes from a sex life centred on Drenka (Marvel), a Croatian-born housewife with whom he carried on an affair for years. Mickey brings a can-you-believe-this-stuff attitude towards his own life and to life itself, with an utter lack of mortification that could yield a kind of enlightenment, if he could ever escape who he is.

The play, set in 1994, smoothly unfolds as a series of encounters with Drenka, friends, relatives from beyond the grave, and so on. Turturro and Levy grasp and render what might be called the Rothian present: the vivid sense of Mickey reliving his memories, staring at the wild past while looking at the inevitable future.

Two men and a woman sit at a table, talking
From left, Jason Kravits, Elizabeth Marvel and John Turturro © Monique Carboni

The action accordingly opens with a joyful tableau of Mickey and Drenka in flagrante (clothed), but in the next scene, Mickey is processing Drenka’s death from cancer. As the play progresses, and his marriage and career fall apart, he’s dogged by the sense that his life has been a waste (especially compared to his brother, Morty, who died fighting in the second world war). “It takes a lifetime to determine what matters, and by then it’s not there any more,” Mickey says — albeit immediately after a riff on morning erections.

Turturro (who spearheaded the adaptation) gathers in force, as Mickey emerges from the shock of Drenka’s vanishing from life to chase his usual demons: propositioning a friend’s wife, and pleasuring himself at Drenka’s grave (an infamous scene in the novel). The ever-engaging actor takes to the gloriously unwholesome material with wholesome glee, and expresses a nuanced compassion for what some have called Roth’s hardest-to-love protagonist.

Marvel especially brings out a tenderness in Drenka’s sometimes comical sexual adventures with Mickey. Kravits, mainly playing a straight man as Mickey’s normal friend, Norman, also has an adorable, and elegiac, turn as an ancient cousin, Fish. The production, directed by Jo Bonney, has a way of limbering up Roth’s sometime domineering prose style, also making succinct use of projected shadow backdrops. In the end, while Mickey’s salacious behaviour grabs the attention, the play understands the biggest outrage about life: that it’s all over so soon.


To December 17, thenewgroup.org

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