The New Group has opened its 2023-24 season with the world premiere of Sabbath’s Theater, adapted for the stage by Ariel Levy and John Turturro from Philip Roth’s 1995 novel of the same name, for a limited Off-Broadway engagement at Pershing Square Signature Center. Known for his explicit themes, graphic language, and depraved characters in such books as Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Roth proclaimed Sabbath’s Theater – the darkest and most “fearlessly filthy” of his works, and a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize – his personal favorite, and all of his signature vulgarity, sexual obsession, toxic masculinity, and pubescent humor is brought to life, along with full frontal male nudity, wrapped in an American flag, in the current production – a show that seems dated, gratuitous, and juvenile in our current, and what we can only hope are more enlightened and progressive, times.
Directed by Jo Bonney, the three-hander is presented in the format of a non-linear memory play, in which the 64-year-old disgraced former puppet-maker Mickey Sabbath (who also has a past connection here to Off-Broadway) recalls disjointed scenes from his life with innumerable sex partners, betrayed and disappointed family members and friends, and his longtime married and equally promiscuous lover Drenka, whose death, and the urging and belittling voice of his deceased mother (in a misogynist nod to Freudian mother-blaming), have brought him to the brink of suicide.
In addition to the prurient recounting and exhaustive reenactments of his debauchery, and raunchy jokes and jabs at the Jewish population (Roth was a professed atheist), intended to make it all sound funny, come some later moments of recognition and the emotion he felt at his failures and the loss of the two people with whom he was most connected (Drenka and his elder brother, who was killed decades before, in WWII), which don’t last long and seem completely out of character – as demonstrated in the final scene. That’s also true of the lofty poetic language of his direct-address narration, which contrasts dramatically with his free-flowing obscenities and uninhibited descriptions of his libertine sexual activity.
The cast, starring Turturro as Sabbath, Elizabeth Marvel as Drenka, his wife, the ghostly presence of his mother, and some of the other women in his life, and Jason Kravits as his brother, best friend, and other male figures, fully embraces the content and masterfully captures the distinctive personalities, with Marvel and Kravits flawlessly shifting their accents (dialect coaching by Kate Wilson), demeanors, and appearances (aided by Arnulfo Maldonado’s costumes and wigs and makeup by J. Jared Janas), as they switch from one role to the next, of the liaisons and antagonists Sabbath recalls in his disturbed obsessive mind. In the case of Kravits, he is almost unrecognizable as the same actor in his changing stellar portrayals.
Their committed performances are supported by choreography by Kelly Devine and background projections by Alex Basco Koch, with a close-up view of the Empire State Building (which, considering the subject matter, is probably intended to be seen as a looming phallic symbol) and active Pop-style illustrations of the female genitalia and shadow puppets by Erik Sanko of masturbation and ejaculation, again intended to contribute to the salacious laughs. Lighting by Jeff Croiter and sound by Mikaal Sulaiman change with the situations, on Maldonado’s mostly bare set with movable tables and chairs, a tombstone, and a curtain suspended mid-stage, which drops during the opening scene to reveal Sabbath and Drenko having very audible sex – an indication of much of what’s to come (yes, sexual innuendo intended, to give you an idea of Roth’s sense of humor).
It’s not a question in this day and age of Sabbath’s Theater being shocking, offensive, or immoral to an adult audience, it’s more about the questionable entertainment value of delving into the mind and sexcapades of a dirty old man. Despite the outstanding performances of the cast, I found it more fixated, adolescent, and redundant than compelling.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
Sabbath’s Theater plays through Sunday, December 17, 2023, at the New Group, performing at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $37-112, including fees), go online. Masks are not required.