How Philip Roth’s Raunchiest Novel Made It to the Stage

For John Turturro, it was time to honor Philip Roth. Turturro, the veteran actor, had been friends with the novelist for nearly a quarter-century when Roth died in 2018 at 85. They first met, Turturro recalled, after Roth saw his performance in the 1994 film “Quiz Show” and picked him to star in a one-man stage adaptation of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth’s 1969 best seller about a young man with a penchant for self-pleasure.

That play never got beyond readings. Plans for other works had similar fates. Two years after Roth’s death, Turturro appeared in the HBO mini-series “The Plot Against America,” David Simon and Ed Burns’s adaptation of Roth’s 2004 alternate-history novel.

Still, Turturro said, he felt he wanted to “complete the conversation.”

Now he’s starring in the New Group’s production of “Sabbath’s Theater,” Roth’s 1995 novel about a lascivious 64-year-old ex-puppeteer named Mickey Sabbath, which is in previews at Pershing Square Signature Theater. The book, a National Book Award winner regarded both as maybe Roth’s greatest novel and his black sheep, is certainly his raunchiest and most transgressive. (What Alexander Portnoy does with a piece of liver, Sabbath does at his lover’s grave.)

Those familiar with the story might reasonably wonder: Why, out of all of Roth’s nearly 30 works of fiction, has John Turturro elected to embody the most estranging, the most irredeemable, the quite simply filthiest character in Roth’s canon?

Turturro is also starring as the title character. “I was not afraid of it,” he said of the divisive protagonist. “I don’t have to be the hero.”Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

“He’s like a stand-up comedian. That lends itself to the theater,” Turturro, 66, said of the Roth who wrote “Sabbath’s Theater.” “When he’s on a rant you go from Lorena Bobbitt to Mussolini to Ibsen to Macbeth, all in the same breath.”

There were other reasons, too. Turturro was attracted to the novel’s house style: Its manic, sarcastic, abasing observations, largely written in the third person but never far from Sabbath’s perspective, seemed made for the theater.

As Sabbath, Turturro is onstage virtually the entire play, speaking for much of that time and cycling through emotions like excitement and pity, desire and tenderness, depression and optimism.

“You let the whole creature out,” Ariel Levy, the New Yorker staff writer with whom Turturro adapted the script, told Turturro during a joint interview, quoting from “Sabbath’s Theater.” She added: “And that’s what [Roth] sensed about you.”

Turturro replied: “I was not afraid of it. I don’t have to be the hero.”

Not having to be the hero is an important qualification for the actor playing Mickey Sabbath. His exploits include an obscenity arrest, a phone-sex scandal and compulsive lecherousness — up to and including stealing his friend’s college-aged daughter’s underwear from her childhood bedroom.

Judith Thurman, the New Yorker staff writer and close friend of Roth’s, said “Sabbath’s Theater” was Roth’s favorite of his own books, the one he chose to read from at his 80th birthday celebration.

“It is his most impious book, in a lifetime of impiety,” said Thurman, adding: “I think he would have been delighted that Ari and John had the nerve to do this. Nerve was one of the qualities in an artist that he most admired.”

Roth at home in New York City, a few months before he died in 2018.Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
The 1995 novel is a National Book Award winner and regarded as one of Roth’s greatest.

For both Turturro and Levy, Sabbath’s offensiveness, his audacity, his utter lack of embarrassment alchemized into Roth’s most life-affirming book, one that finds the protagonist recalling all the people and things he has loved and lost — his brother, his mother, his first wife, his vocation (his fingers are now arthritic), his longtime mistress. As Sabbath puts it in the play (in one of many lines of third-person narration transposed to Sabbath’s voice): “For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence.”

The production, directed by Jo Bonney, leans into the novel’s frank depictions of unbounded lust, gleeful disloyalty and bodily functions. It is, at times, almost a gross-out comedy. Yet the story’s undertones of grief also attracted Turturro and Levy. Turturro read Roth’s memoir of his father’s death, “Patrimony: A True Story,” after his own father died and identified profoundly with it. Levy’s 2017 memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply,” recounted a miscarriage, and she said that while working on the play she thought of her husband’s having lost a brother while a young man, as Sabbath does.

“We did this workshop in London at the National Theater, and somebody there asked, ‘Why now?’” Levy said. “And John said, ‘Because we’re all going to die.’ And that’s it. The depth and the death, grief and being haunted and sometimes feeling the dead are as real to you as the living.”

The conventions of theater permit Sabbath’s many ghosts to haunt him not just in his mind’s eye but physically on the stage. In one scene, a nightgown represents the corpse of a mother mourned by her daughter, Sabbath’s first wife, Nikki; Sabbath, feet away, is simultaneously in the present tense with another character and conjuring the memory of Nikki, who herself disappeared decades earlier.

“The ghosts of Mickey’s loved ones are more real to him than the living,” Bonney said. Enacting the novel’s fragmented nature by jumping back and forth in time was crucial to its dramatic success, she added. “We’re taking people on this ride of the mind as opposed to a regularly plotted story.”

Such staging was revelatory to Levy, 49, who had never worked professionally in theater. “When you’re just writing, all you have is words, words, words, words, words,” Levy said. By contrast, she added, in theater, “you have other things going into the storytelling, like the way a person’s body is or their voice.”

PERHAPS THE GHOST foremost summoned by the production is Roth’s. Turturro’s lanky frame is the opposite of Sabbath’s, but it echoes Roth’s, and the actor acknowledged that his Sabbath is partly a gloss on the novelist.

“He definitely has a Philip-like quality — dark, antic, hectic, comic at the same time,” said Thurman, who saw a reading of the play in 2021 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Turturro with Jason Kravits, left, and Elizabeth Marvel in the show, scheduled to run through Dec. 17 at the Pershing Square Signature Center.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

When it came time to seek a writing partner for the script, Turturro said it was important to find someone who would be faithful to Roth’s language.

“I was thinking about playwrights,” Turturro said, “but then I was thinking, ‘Would they want to come in and rewrite Philip’s work?’”

Instead Turturro pitched Hilton Als, a longtime theater critic who is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. Als suggested Levy. By then it was the spring of 2020, so Levy and Turturro met over Skype and got to work.

“We didn’t write anything,” Levy said. “It’s only Roth’s writing. Including most of the stage directions. Because you can’t top it.”

During rehearsals last month, Levy, considering how a scene should be blocked, grabbed her pummeled copy of the novel, found the original rendering and consulted it like scripture.

One challenge was turning the novel’s stream of consciousness into scenes with characters, along with soliloquy-like asides from Sabbath.

“We didn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s do this as a pushback against the oppressions of the moment,’” Levy said. “But is there a little bit of a thrill in all that? Sure, absolutely.”Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Their script stipulates that the 16 characters besides Sabbath be played by just two actors. In this production, Jason Kravits portrays Sabbath’s put-together, respectable friend Norman Cowan as well as his 100-year-old cousin, Fish; Elizabeth Marvel plays his mistress, his wives and his mother.

Turturro said the decision was inspired by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s 1943 film “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” in which Deborah Kerr plays three characters. “You know that thing in life where people seem like iterations of each other?” Levy said. “One actress being all these women makes so much sense.”

Alongside Turturro’s Sabbath, the signature performance might be Marvel’s turn as Drenka Balich, Sabbath’s 52-year-old Croatian mistress. A mother and a lover, a force of life and sex, Drenka has long been Exhibit A for those defending Roth from charges of misogyny in his depictions of women.

“Drenka is such a heroine on so many levels,” Levy said, “so interesting and complicated and older, just a combination of traits you don’t see flipped together. You see it in life, but you don’t get to see it onstage, on the screen.”

Is 2023 ready for Mickey Sabbath? If so-called cancel culture — which Roth forecast in “Sabbath’s Theater” and, more directly, in “The Human Stain” (2000) — were to come for any Roth novel, it would surely be this one.

“We didn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s do this as a pushback against the oppressions of the moment,’” Levy said. “But is there a little bit of a thrill in all that? Sure, absolutely.”

In a Yale Review essay published this year and partly titled “in praise of filth,” the novelist Garth Greenwell wrote that he “can’t imagine a book like ‘Sabbath’s Theater’ being published today, certainly not by anyone save a writer of Roth’s stature.” Yet to Greenwell it is precisely the novel’s depiction of various repellent activities that lends the novel its moral force. “By repeatedly tempting us to pass judgment on Sabbath,” Greenwell added, “Roth’s novel reminds us how much more a person is than their worst acts.”

Turturro wants theatergoers to make their own judgments. “My job is to keep the audience awake,” he said. “Whatever you think, you think.”

Levy added: “It’s not a good play to bring your grandma to. Although, it depends on your grandma. My grandma would have loved it. She was dirty. She was really dirty.”

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