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  • Jonathan Kalb

The Melancholy Prick

John Turturro is an intrepid, compelling, seriously gifted actor. He has a whole category of nebishy grandeur and hangdog aggressiveness all to himself—Hollywood’s sincere wise guy. Our theater is lucky that he has returned to it again and again through his long and impressive movie career. From Danny in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea back in the 1980s to Gogo in Godot, Lopakhin in Cherry Orchard and Solness in The Master Builder, he has created vivid, unforgettable variations on many complex and difficult stage characters. His latest theater project is an effort to bring one of American literature’s most complex and difficult nondramatic characters to theatrical life—Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s celebrated and, to some, offensive 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater. The results suggest that this task may well be impossible.

Turturro and Roth were friends for a quarter century, and he has explained that he wanted to adapt this book to honor Roth, who died in 2018, and also because he found its depictions of “haunted” grief, in which “the dead are as real to you as the living,” deeply moving. The problem with that is, Sabbath’s Theater—one of the major novels of the last century and a pinnacle of Roth’s formidable oeuvre—doesn’t really lend itself to such purposes. It isn’t a tender or wholesome book friendly to commemorative sentiment, or display of wholesome feelings. It’s rather a breathtakingly bravura, tactically insincere performance of moral defiance and reflective wandering, swollen with id, sperm, and comic effrontery—more akin to Joyce’s Ulysses, Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Goethe’s Faust than to any naughty-mouthed social novel like Portnoy’s Complaint, with which it’s often compared.

Mickey Sabbath is much more than a cranky, middle-aged Portnoy. He’s sex-obsessed and hilariously uninhibited, sure, but he’s also bottomlessly self-involved and utterly asocial, an inexhaustible fount of appetite and inspired derision akin to flagrantly monstrous negators like Mephistopheles and Marquis de Sade. His blithe indifference to consequences is what gives his character scale, diabolical majesty, and enduring shock value, and that subversiveness proves to be Turturro’s stumbling block. This inescapably sincere actor is primarily interested in human questions of personality and interpersonal relations. And in celebrating his friend—a quintessentially social act. This is no doubt the reason why his show feels so anomalously wholesome, despite its frontal nudity, simulated masturbation, and 100 minutes of raunchy crosstalk. It’s essentially a domesticated Mickey.

Turturro adapted the book in collaboration with the New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy, and he is the main performer. The show is produced by The New Group and directed by Jo Bonney. The action takes place on a spare set designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, consisting mainly of simple furniture pieces, prop shelves at the sides, and plain curtains used as screens for imaginative projections designed by Alex Basco Koch. Two other actors share the stage: Elizabeth Marvel, who plays all the women, and Jason Kravits, who plays Sabbath’s old friend and producer Norman, his ancient cousin Fish, and other male roles. All of these are fine performers, with charisma and transformative talent that could hold any audience for a few hours. What they can’t do, alas, is compensate for the lacunae in a drama gleaned primarily from this novel’s caper-like plot and quippy dialogue passages. That won’t capture the heedless, pants-down, screw-everything seductive force of Roth’s rushing stream of thought.

The play follows Mickey through his putative end-of-life identity crisis and bout with despair. The 64-year-old Jewish ex-puppeteer, once notorious in New York City for his sexually provocative street performances, fled upstate in the 1960s after his first wife Nikki disappeared. Thirty years later, he is unemployed and disgraced due to a sexual harassment scandal at the college where he taught, locked in a cycle of mutual loathing with his second wife, alcoholic Roseanne, and grieving the death from cancer of his longtime lover Drenka—the Croatian wife of a local innkeeper who was his sexually voracious soul-mate for the last 13 years.

Onstage, he has hot sex with Drenka, chats with the ghost of his dead mother, masturbates on Drenka’s grave, remembers Nikki and his beloved older brother Morty (a pilot killed in WW II), and has a few other reflective moments, yet most of the time he careens through the novel’s antic episodes. After learning of an old producer-friend’s death by suicide, he heads to New York for the funeral and stays with the dead friend’s partner Norman, a wealthy, generous, and gracious man genuinely concerned about his mental state. Then he hits on Norman’s wife, rifles his daughter’s underwear, and steals money from the apartment. He also accosts a young woman on the subway who reminds him of Nikki, begs for coins while reciting Shakespeare, and heads to the Jersey shore town where he grew up. There he buys himself a grave at the run-down Jewish graveyard, finds an unexpected box of Morty’s stuff in the house of his aged cousin Fish, and drapes himself, nude, in the American flag that once draped his brother’s casket, as if preparing to commit suicide. Anyone paying attention knows that won’t happen.

What’s missing from all this mordantly entertaining self-display is the savagely honest, deeply literate intelligence of Roth’s voice. Also missing are all the book’s passages that cast Mickey in a truly ugly light: such as when he buys alcohol for a woman at Roseanne’s rehab clinic in hopes of sex, contemplates blackmailing Norman’s terrified housekeeper into sex, and applauds a bum for kicking a pigeon to death. Turturro plays a Mickey who wants to be liked, whose theatricality is all show-offy egoism, and whose frustrations are just melancholy bumps on the sentimental road to final self-knowledge.

The deeper resonance of Roth’s title, Sabbath’s Theater, is in its reference to the hellish mental and spiritual black box that entraps Mickey. Because this man recognizes value in no human connections other than the carnal, he can never tell whether anything in his crisis is real or true. He’s doomed to suspect that everything he does and thinks—even his pangs of conscience, regret, despair, and sympathy that seem to point toward some potential epiphany—is merely performed rather than real. That is a terrible condition, way beyond sentimental regret. It’s in fact a disturbing challenge to us all to define our relation to the laughing god Insincerity.

Photos: Monique Carboni

Sabbath's Theater adapted by Ariel Levy and John Turturro from the novel by Philip Roth

The New Group at Signature Theatre Center

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