Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Mickey and Joey: Sabbath’s Theater and Pal Joey

Elizabeth Marvel and John Turturro in Sabbath's Theater. (Photo: Jeenah Moon)

Devoted as I am to Philip Roth’s novels, I had trouble with his National Book Award winner Sabbath’s Theater, which he released in 1995. Its stylistic excesses in the service of underlining the sexual indulgences of its sixty-four-year-old protagonist, the one-time puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, whose career was sidelined by arthritis, defeated me; I put it down after a couple of hundred pages. It’s the only one of Roth’s many books I couldn’t finish. But maybe I should give it another try. Ariel Levy and John Turturro’s stage adaptation, produced by The New Group at the Signature Theatre with Turturro as Sabbath, is a majestic piece of theatre, notwithstanding the modesty of Jo Bonney’s production: three actors, two of whom, Elizabeth Marvel and Jason Kravits, play several parts; a small space containing a few props and an upstage screen for projecting a handful of evocative images (and in one scene Kravits’s silhouette); Roth’s 451 pages trimmed down to an hour and forty minutes of text without intermission.

It’s a play about raging against the dying of the light. In the course of its non-linear narrative, Mickey, who is in a miserable marriage, watches his happily wed Croatian mistress, Drenka, succumb to cancer, attends the funeral of his old producer, converses with the persistent ghost of his long-dead mother, and weeps over a box of mementos of his older brother Morty, killed in the Second World War. Sabbath almost drowns himself, but he’s too consumed by life, throbbing with it, to extinguish his own; even in the depths of mourning for his dead he’s revivified by anger and hatred and a glorious, voracious sexual appetite. He memorializes the transgressive sexual episodes of his past, like the phone sex scandal that lost him a university teaching job and his attempts to bed the periodontist wife of his friend Norman Cowan while coveting their daughter’s underwear and especially his wildly adventurous long-term affair with Drenka. (The play, like the novel, begins with a symbolic death – Drenka’s refusal to continue sleeping with him unless he gives up all his other liaisons.)

As the uncensored, unstoppable satyr-scoundrel Sabbath, Turturro gives an immense, bardic performance. As an actor Turturro has always been hard to pin down. More than anything else I’d say he’s a Method performer of the old school, like the Group Theatre actors of the 1930s whose commitment to Stanislavskian principles was filtered through the legacy and love of theatricality and who knew not just how to fill a stage or screen but how to expand it. And he’s a raconteur, a satirist, a master of gab. Watching him in Sabbath’s Theater, I thought of actors as wide-ranging as Walter Huston, George C. Scott and Larry Pine, whom I once saw command a stage single-handedly in an adaptation of Tolstoy’s short story “The Kreutzer Sonata.” Turturro’s cohorts here are superlative, both of them slipping deftly in and out of a variety of characters. When Marvel plays Drenka, she matches Turturro’s breadth and depth: they’re a pair of world-size souls. But she’s also splendid as Mickey’s alcoholic wife Roseanna and Dr. Cowan. Kravits plays, among others, Norman Cowan, Drenka’s faithful husband Matija, and a stranger Sabbath sits next to on the subway and with whom he is drawn into a funny, robust tête-à-tête. But Kravits is most memorable as Sabbath’s centenarian cousin Fish, in whose home he finds Morty’s mementos. Beyond the extraordinary quality and range of their work, this trio demonstrates a profound and inspiriting love of acting; their exuberance echoes that of the material. You can’t imagine that Roth wouldn’t have cheered along with the rest of us during the curtain calls.

The play, like Mickey, pulsates with life. It’s uproarious and hilarious, but also poetic and moving. And it arrives like a kind of redemption at a time when our culture, particularly in the theatre, has become moralistic and puritanical and punitive, and preoccupied with placing restrictions on the ways in which artists are permitted personal expression. Walking out of the Signature Theatre, you feel as if Turturro and Levy and the irrepressible ghost of Philip Roth have marched us gleefully out of re-education camp.

Ephraim Sykes and Elizabeth Stanley in Pal Joey. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Every time someone mounts a revival of the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey the John O’Hara book is red-penned, either because of its perceived structural flaws or because it’s deemed to be behind the times. No one cares anymore that it’s almost the only adaptation of any of O’Hara’s novels or stories that captures his hard-boiled style and the tang of his language (a 1987 TV adaptation of his story “Natica Jackson” with Michelle Pfeiffer did quite a good job in that arena), or that the no musical besides Gypsy has conveyed the seedier side of show business with such vitality or economy. The book does ramble in the second act, but the enjoyable productions I’ve seen at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company (with Donna Murphy) and the Goodspeed Opera House and the Shaw Festival didn’t exactly feel as if they were struggling to make the material work. The latest Pal Joey, in the autumn slot in the Encores! series at City Center, was rewritten by Richard LaGravenese and Daniel “Koa” Beaty, who have updated the Chicago setting from the late thirties to the late forties. Joey is now an African American singer and dancer (played by Ephraim Sykes) who talks his way into headlining a revue at a Black South Side club and becomes the lover of its tough-minded white owner, Vera (Elizabeth Stanley). She inherited it from her wealthy husband, whose business wasn’t always on the up-and-up. As in the original, Joey is also involved with a good girl, Linda (Aisha Jackson), in this version not a naïf but a talented jazz singer.

For the first act the show more or less replicates O’Hara’s plot, though some of the new details don’t make a lot of sense. Linda’s reticent about singing in front of live audiences because she’s had trouble getting hired at white clubs. She claims she wants people to hear her voice without putting a Black face in front of it, as if her blackness weren’t stunningly embodied in her vocal style. Later she says she couldn’t get jobs at Black clubs either, which not only is a contradiction but, once we’ve heard Jackson sing, we simply don’t believe it. This and other glitches don’t get in the way too much, once you resign yourself to the fact that what you’re watching isn’t so much Pal Joey as a gloss on it. But after intermission the script goes nutty, piling one implausible complication on top of another as if the adaptors had run a contest for new plot ideas and opted to try them all out at the same time. Vera bankrolls Joey’s dream of renovating the club under the name Chez Joey but persuades him to tamp down the elements that she knows well-heeled white audiences – the people she runs with – won’t go for (specifically the radically bop musical stylings) and he’s torn between her dream of making him a star and his loyalty to his own musical vision. She falls in love with him but behind his back arranges to burn the club down after opening night for the insurance after she’s sunk all her money into it, figuring that the cops will assume it was the work of racists who have been sending her threatening letters. Joey fired Linda at Vera’s insistence but Lucille (Loretta Devine), an ex-vocalist who has been managing the club, begs her to come back, if not to perform then to remind Joey of his roots. Lucille doesn’t show much remorse when the club burns because Tony (Jeb Brown), Vera’s (white) fixer, who arranged the arson for her, turns out to be a long-time fan who buys her a mink and spirits her off to Canada to enjoy retirement in the countryside.

This Pal Joey was choreographed by Savion Glover (also listed as co-director with Tony Goldwyn), whose trademark contribution is a series of percussive dances, mostly of them confined to the shadows (the attractive, if obtrusive, lighting is by Jon Goldman). They’re awful, especially the ones with symbolic dancers swirling around Joey, at one point brushing him off and picking him up off the ground after his racial identity crisis literally forces him to his knees. And whenever Glover has to stage conventional musical-theatre numbers, they’re so insipid and repetitive that your attention keeps going off the hard-working showgirls. Daryl Waters has crafted new arrangements of the Rodgers and Hart songs; early on they’re in big band style, which works very well, but they become increasingly bop and, even on the rare occasions when they operate as standard expression-of-emotion show numbers, like Stanley’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” the musical embellishments get in the way of the song.  Rodgers and Hart made fun of jazz arrangements that distort the melody in their song “I Like to Recognize the Tune” from the 1939 Too Many Girls; they might not have enjoyed the joke that here it’s the lyrics you can’t decipher.

The new book writers have turned Pal Joey into a Rodgers and Hart jukebox musical, retaining only seven of the original songs and piling on fifteen others. What’s more, the interpolations sometimes don’t fit the situation. Did it occur to the people who put together the revamped score that you can’t use “Ev’rything I’ve Got” from By Jupiter as a love song? It’s a duet sung by two people who can’t stand each other: “I’ve got eyes for you that give you dirty looks / I’ve got words that do not come from children’s books.” And though, as a reporter pal of Vera’s, Brooks Ashmanskas shows off his style as well as a hoofer’s grace and confidence on “Zip,” as LaGravenese and Beaty have redone the scene (an interview with Joey for a puff piece on the occasion of the Chez Joey opening), it’s puzzling that he would be singing a song that was written as a parody of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s attempt to present herself as an intellectual.

Sykes can certainly dance, but he comes across as strangely bland, though the fault may lie in the confused writing of his character. The Joey John O’Hara wrote was a cad, a shameless player who lies fluently and has such awful taste that, when he gets the chance to run his own club, he throws in an elaborate production number called “In the Flower Garden of My Heart” where the chorus girls dress as flowers. (It’s his idea of a Ziegfeld Follies showstopper.) This Joey is ambitious but the music he wants to perform is on the cutting edge of jazz and he’s only a part-time bastard; down deep he’s a sweetie. I doubt anyone could play this part as it’s been retooled. The idea of linking Joey with the bop movement is a steal from Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York movie, and there are glancing lifts from Follies and Chicago and a rather obvious one from Dreamgirls.

The women are the ones to watch in this show. Stanley (who played Claire De Loone in the wonderful 2013 Broadway revival of On the Town) is so sexy and savvy as Vera that the contradictions in the rewrite somehow don’t taint her performance, and no one I’ve seen in the role has ever been better on “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” despite the issues with the second half of the arrangement. She gives this knockout of a wised-up ballad a diamond-cutter reading with tiny waves of emotion just under the surface. Jackson is a warm, generous Linda, and her satiny mezzo voice is a revelation. Devine gets only one number (a medley of “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and “My Heart Stood Still,” both interpolations from other musicals), but the writers were smart enough to give her all the best wisecracks. These ladies keep you in your seat whenever the Loony Tunes book and Savion Glover’s pretentious choreography make you itchy to head for the exit.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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