Maybe so. But novels aren’t plays. And prose isn’t dialogue. Words that live comfortably on the page turn awkward and overly formal in the mouths of the actors. This version, a monologue with interruptions, shifts constantly between dialogue and direct address, the better to maintain Roth’s language. In this container, the drama stagnates, weighed down by Sabbath’s solipsistic gripes. (The adapters, in one decisive excision, have stripped those gripes of racism.)
In his youth, Sabbath tells us, he was a guerrilla provocateur, the mastermind of a company called Sabbath’s Indecent Theater. If only some of that formal anarchy had infused this production. Where are the puppets, the street theater tactics? Jo Bonney is a sensitive and inventive director, yet here invention fails her. She offers a mostly spare stage, neatly delineated by Jeff Croiter’s clever lighting design and Alex Basco Koch’s dull projections, and a steady march from scene to scene as Sabbath, already a self-described “degenerate,” degenerates further. Yet not too far.
As Sabbath says, in the middle of the play and again at the end, “To everyone I have ever horrified, to the appalled who’d consider me a dangerous man, loathsome, degenerate and gross. Not at all! My failure is failing to have gone far enough!” Agreed. I am a highly shockable sort of person. Still I can’t say that I ever felt truly scandalized or even absolutely engaged, most likely because the characters and situations remain unreal, tethered to the page. A brief scene of Sabbath trying to pleasure himself with his arthritic fingers was at least funny.
If “Sabbath’s Theater” offers a limited tour of the human psyche, it succeeds as a tour de force for Turturro and for Marvel, too. (Jason Kravits is perfectly capable in a number of roles, most of them thankless.) As Sabbath, Turturro is shifty, kinetic, with a bend in the knees and a shrug in the shoulders, ferocious in his loathing and desire. His performance is vivid, visceral in a way that transcends the prose. Marvel, who is never anything less than glorious, enfleshes characters who might otherwise seem merely male projections. In contrast to Turturro’s arm-waving defiance, she offers an effortless stillness and a great capacity for joy. Her characters are fully human and quietly life-affirming, counterparts to Sabbath’s peculiar death drive.