Saturday , June 15 2024
John Turturro in 'Sabbath's Theater'
John Turturro in a fine adaptation of 'Sabbath's Theater,' directed by Jo Bonney (Monique Carboni)

Theater Review: ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’ with John Turturro and Elizabeth Marvel

Sabbath’s Theater is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s titular, award-winning novel.

In their fine adaptation of Philip Roth’s sardonic novel Sabbath’s Theater, Ariel Levy and John Turturro present 64-year-old antihero Mickey Sabbath in crisis. Sabbath’s lecherous obsession with his sexual prowess and machismo reveal his fractured personality. The fine balance of his self-ridicule with candid revelations of emotional and physical debauchery solidifies this amazing dramatic adaptation. The world premiere is currently at the Signature Theater until December 17. The terrific acting and Jo Bonney’s audacious, stylized direction make it a must-see.

With drop-dead pacing for maximum comedic effect, the well-structured play engages, despite the minimal sets and costumes by Arnulfo Maldonado. Mickey Sabbath, who once ran a puppet theater, turns the audience into his own puppet-voyeurs. In his compulsion to reveal his life as “live theater,” he forces us to witness his lustful outrageousness. However, at the heart of various scenes with his lover, his friend’s wife and others, we find his humorous self-deprecation covers loneliness and isolation.

Elizabeth Marvel, John Turturro in 'Sabbath's Theater' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
Elizabeth Marvel and John Turturro in Sabbath’s Theater (Monique Carboni)

Mickey is the main character of his own comedy, but we note his downward emotional spiral as he confronts mortality. By the end of the play, those important to him have died. Others, driven away by his cruel infantilism, abandon him. Finally, struck by death’s inevitability, he questions the belief in an afterlife that he held as a child.


As we watch Mickey relive salient moments of his relationships, we agree with his nihilistic, funny self-reflections. This inveterate loser captures our emotions. So, we laugh and stand in Mickey’s shoes, despite their stench. Invariably, he reminds us of our own absurd humanity.

Turturro’s Mickey incisively relays his “exploits” through direct address and enactment of flashbacks. With their formidable acting chops, Elizabeth Marvel and Jason Kravits portray four main characters each, and other minor ones, to relay picaresque events in Mickey’s life. Through scenes that meld the past with ghostly encounters in the present, we witness Mickey’s breakdown.

Jason Kravits, Elizabeth Marvel, John Turturro, Sabbath's Theater' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
(L to R): Jason Kravits, Elizabeth Marvel, John Turturro in Sabbath’s Theater (Monique Carboni)

Sabbath’s Theater begins with a comedic bang

The play begins with a hysterically funny love scene between Marvel’s Drenka and Turturro’s Mickey. With some of the most humorous of Roth’s lines, we understand the sexual “greatness” of their love affair. Also, we see that without her, even though she cheated on Mickey with her husband and others, he feels adrift and without purpose. Thus, his masturbating at her grave later in the play, effected with a scrim and LOL cartoonish video enhancement, makes uproarious sense.

That scene also includes another lover of Drenka’s (Kravits in a hat and trench coat) paying respects at her grave. Jealously watching him from behind a tree, the outraged Mickey protests and throws something to stop him. Preposterous and hysterical though it may be, we understand Mickey’s silly anger. He defines his identity via his sexual potency. Beneath this ridiculous male trope, we realize there’s acute desperation and fear. The scene at Drenka’s grave, beyond riotous, is poignant and tragic.

Turturro’s refreshingly honest portrayal

Intrigued, shocked and somehow delighted at Mickey’s raw, sexual reminiscences, his crisp, poetic descriptions and sharp, funny quips, we identify with Mickey’s humanity. Key to our empathy as we follow his downward trajectory toward possible suicide is our gradual understanding of his view of himself as an abject failure at everything. Mickey’s refreshing honesty captivates us.

Director Bonney’s vision of Mickey Sabbath’s male fever dream does justice to Roth’s award-winning novel. Made memorable by the adaptation and the brilliant timing and authenticity of Turturro, Marvel and Kravits, Sabbath’s Theater soars. Indeed, Turturro inhabits this role so completely, it appears made for his understanding and consciousness. Likewise, Marvel’s multiple portrayals made her unrecognizable from other roles I’ve seen her in. All three astounded me.

Kudos to the creatives whose minimalist sets, costume design and lighting suspend space and time. Indeed, the effect suggests Mickey’s absorption with his own imagination and consciousness. Praise is due to Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic and costume design), Jeff Croiter (sound design), Alex Basco Koch (projection design), Erik Sanko (shadow puppet design), and J. Jared Janas (wig, hair and makeup design).

For tickets visit The New Group online.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' ( 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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