By Kendra Jones

Beneath the sex, the fucking, is despair.

That evil grin, the gleaming eyes, the graying-white bush growing off his chin.

Mickey Sabbath (John Turturro) makes us uncomfortable, he happily invites us into his most despicable thoughts, and he is so content in exposing us to moments that leave us in awkward silence. Yet we need more of Sabbath’s Theater. 

Sabbath, a retired puppeteer, grapples with the ghost of his mother, the absence of his brother, and the loss of his lover, Drenka (Elizabeth Marvel)—a once-prostitute-turned-married-woman. We are disgusted, appalled, and yet find humorous relief from Sabbath. His character is one I won’t soon forget—and not only because he stood naked draped in an American flag—but because Turturro brings Philip Roth’s perhaps most penetrating male character to stage so overwhelmingly well.

Photo by Monique Carboni

Marvel plays multiple women—the many women of whom Sabbath fantasizes—Drenka, Sabbath’s friend’s wife, Sabbath’s own wife–who yes, is thinly developed, in line with how Roth’s females are often presented. (Jason Kravits) himself takes on not only the character of  Sabbath’s friend Norman, but Drenka’s husband, one of Drenka’s lovers, and Sabbath’s one-hundred-year-old cousin, Fish.

While criticism of Roth’s female characters has argued them as thinly developed, Drenka holds a firm place on this stage. The focus on Sabbath’s masculine identity follows Roth’s inclinations of in-depth males, but Drenka’s relationship with Sabbath does guide him. Her death tips him, breaks him, almost forces him off the ledge.

“A living being choosing death. That’s entertainment.”

And we watch everything that could lead him to that point; instead, the intensity of his explicit behavior swells.

It forces me to consider my own repulsive behaviors, ashamed moments, those losses and rejections that have broken me. We watch Sabbath contemplate and struggle with mortality; I wonder how many seated in the rows in front and behind me are fearing, or avoiding, or perhaps aching for death. What are our reactions when we are faced with the freedom to die? Where is the line that merges our genuine self with our behavior inflicted by hopelessness, agony, questionings of mortality?

Sabbath’s wife leaves him, which prompts him to stay overnight at his friend, Norman’s house, where he stays in the bedroom of the Norman’s daughter. He searches for nude photos. He wears the daughter’s underwear on his head. He shoves them in his pocket. I can almost feel the hard smooth plastic of the underwear’s buttons as he rubs them, expressing crude, sexual desires. Sabbath boldly makes suggestions and advances towards Norman’s wife. Sabbath is utterly repugnant—typical of Roth’s protagonists, but I find myself rooting for him. Rooting that he’ll find closure with his deceased parents, his mother’s ghost, and his brother Morty. He finds Morty’s belongings—he becomes “custodian” of a box of Morty’s things—which he obtains even in a roguish way.

Sabbath’s Theater is just as much a sensory experience as it is psychological—the performance itself begins as Sabbath and Drenka’s moans and whimpers and cravings emerge from behind a sheet, their bodies tangled, and disheveled.

Throughout the play, the whistle of Sabbath’s mother’s ghost echoes. I feel the weight of the burden Sabbath becomes on those he surrounds, the pain he carries, the desperation that he weighs on the audience, the heaviness of the kept, folded thick cloth of Morty’s American flag.

I hold my breath as he extracts Morty’s electric shaver, with his hairs still in the blade,

Morty’s Purple Heart,

As he places Morty’s red, white, and blue yarmulke on his own head,

Touches Morty’s clarinet reed to his own lips,

Lifts Morty’s American flag from the box,

Weeping, Sabbath reads a letter from Morty, written less than a week before his death–

Oh,

“How heavy a flag is.”

Sabbath doesn’t choose death—we wait for it, we somehow know he won’t. He still has so much further to take his behavior.

 

Sabbath Theater, adapted from the novel by Philip Roth, is currently in a world premiere production extended through December 17 at The Pershing Square Signature Center (The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre,) 480 West 42nd Street. For tickets, visit thenewgroup.org.

Produced by The New Group with Karen Brooks Hopkins.

Written by Ariel Levy and John Turturro; Directed by Jo Bonney.

WITH: John Turturro (Mickey Sabbath), Elizabeth Marvel (Drenka and others), Jason Kravits (Matijia and others).

Creative Team: Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic & Cotsume Design), Jeff Croiter (Lighting Design), Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound Design), Alex Basco Koch (Projection Design), Erik Sanko (Shadow Puppet Design), J. Jared Janas (Wig, Hair, & Makeup Design), Kate Wilson (Dialect Coach), Stephen Michael Vernado (Assistant Stage Manager), Valerie A. Peterson (Production Stage Manager).