Interpreting Roth

Ariel Levy reveals new details about Philip Roth stage adaptation with John Turturro 

A new stage adaptation of one of Roth’s most acclaimed novels, Sabbath’s Theater, will make its U.S. debut at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark


Philip Roth in his Kips Bay home

The novels of Philip Roth, the protean Jewish author who died in 2018 at the age of 85, have spawned so many mediocre film adaptations that a frustrated critic once called for a moratorium on using the author’s notoriously unforgiving oeuvre as a source to make movies.

While episodic television has perhaps been recognized as a more obliging medium for interpreting Roth, his sexually transgressive and psychologically febrile works have, it seems, rarely if ever been tested in a major theatrical production.

Next month, however, a scene from a new stage adaptation of one of Roth’s most acclaimed novels, Sabbath’s Theater, will be presented at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, the city where he grew up and which informed much of his literary output.

The performance, announced earlier this month, is scheduled for a one-time showing that will coincide with Roth’s 90th birthday on March 19, as part of a broader, weekend-long celebration of the writer’s legacy called “Roth Unbound.”

Billed in promotion materials as a “sneak preview,” the play as a whole remains “a work in progress” and is still “very much at the beginning stages,” the author and journalist Ariel Levy, who adapted Roth’s novel with the actor John Turturro, told Jewish Insider in an email exchange on Monday where she revealed new details about the production.

The creative pairing may seem unusual to those familiar with Levy, a Jewish staff writer for The New Yorker whose 2005 nonfiction debut, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, was followed by a best-selling memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, in 2017. Her magazine reporting has often focused on gender politics and other feminist issues that sit uneasily beside Roth’s corpus, which has been accused of depicting women in an uncharitable light.

But Levy, 48, said that she and Turturro, who initiated the project, “were both fixated on the same elements of the novel,” pointing “above all else” to what she described as “the love story between” Mickey Sabbath, the titular protagonist, and Drenka Balich, his Croatian paramour. Her death from ovarian cancer leaves Sabbath, a lustful sexagenarian ex-puppeteer, “grief-stricken and desperate,” as one reviewer observed when the novel, which won the National Book Award for fiction, was first released in 1995.

So desperate, it seems, that Sabbath feels compelled to masturbate on Drenka’s grave — a throwback to the wildly libidinous exertions in Portnoy’s Complaint, which put Roth on the map nearly 30 years before Sabbath’s Theater.

The journalist Charles McGrath wrote in 2018 that Sabbath “is in many ways Portnoy grown old but still in the grip of lust and longing, raging against the indignity of old age and yet saved from suicidal impulses by the realization that there are too many people he loves to hate.”

Meanwhile, the actor John Lithgow claimed Sabbath as one of his favorite fictional protagonists,  “a fantastic hero, antihero and even villain, all rolled into one,” he said in a 2019 interview with The New York Times. “Mickey is outrageous, transgressive and wildly theatrical. Now there’s a role I’d love to play, though I’m probably too tall.”

Turturro, who will play Sabbath in an undisclosed scene at the Newark performance, appears to have claimed him first. The 65-year-old actor and occasional director knew Roth personally and had spoken with him about “working together on something over the years,” according to Levy. 

“After Roth’s death, John obtained the rights to Sabbath’s Theater and was looking for someone to collaborate with him on a stage adaptation,” she explained to JI, “but he wasn’t looking for a playwright — he wanted to work with someone who brought an outsider’s perspective.”

Levy recalled that she was initially introduced to Turturro, who could not be reached for comment, when he asked one of her colleagues at The New Yorker, the theater critic Hilton Als, “for a suggestion.” The prospective collaborators “hit it off immediately,” Levy said, working on the adaptation “for about two years” in mostly virtual writing sessions “over the pandemic.”

The process of “trying to condense Roth’s sprawling, brilliant novel into a play,” Levy quipped, was “sort of like cooking one of the world’s great soups down to a bouillon cube.”

For his part, Turturro has described the colorful source material as “a raging, splendidly funny and profound journey on loss,” according to a press release. “Mickey Sabbath is a life force in its purest form.” 

Levy and Turturro will discuss the process of adapting the novel for the stage in more detail at the event next month.

Turturro isn’t new to working with parts of the Roth canon. Three years ago, he played a morally bankrupt rabbi in David Simon’s HBO adaptation of The Plot Against America, based on Roth’s 2004 counterfactual novel. 

Though the new play remains unfinished, Levy said she and Turturro had recently taken it to the National Theatre in London for a workshop, where Marisa Tomei played Drenka “and all the other female roles,” and Jo Bonney directed.

Levy, who called the workshop “fantastic,” clarified that Tomei “won’t be there” for the Newark production next month, which will also include a performance from Jason Kravits. 

The full play, according to a spokesperson for the Newark celebration, will have its official premiere in a couple of years.

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