“Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”
Last month we traveled to New York for my birthday. This time, I wanted to see a play. There were several good choices that weekend, and we decided on The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. I was excited. Not only is this one of the greatest of American plays (and one of my favorites), but the main role of Amanda Wingfield was being played by Sally Field. As I had not read the play in many years, I bought a copy and re-read it on the train. I finished it shortly before we arrived at Penn Station.
The production we were going to see is directed by Sam Gold, known for his bold reinterpretations of the classics. I'm not opposed to "re-interpreting" the classics—Richard III set in a counter-factual fascist England or Romeo and Juliet in mid-20th century New York. For Shakespeare, this works reasonably well because his plays are about language, regardless of time and place.
We booked the tickets for this play before the reviews had come in, flying blind so to speak. But it was Tennesse Williams; it was Sally Field; it was Sam Gold. That was all the information we needed, right?
Lunch that day was at ABC Cocina, a shabby-chic styled tapas restaurant next to the famed ABC Home design Mecca in Manhattan. At this point, however, instinct suddenly kicked in; my amygdala woke up. “Danger Will Robinson, Danger!” Much like my Neanderthal ancestor who grabbed a spear upon seeing a saber toothed tiger, I quickly grabbed my iPhone to read the reviews.
I know that reviews about plays and movies, much like restaurant reviews, should be taken with a grain of salt—merely one person's opinion—but when three major New York-based publications slam a production for nearly identical reasons, then it's time to pull the fire alarm. The opening paragraph from the review in The New Yorker was especially blistering:
The despair and disgust I felt after seeing the director Sam Gold’s rendition of Tennessee Williams’s 1944 play, “The Glass Menagerie” (at the Belasco), was so debilitating that I couldn’t tell if my confused, hurt fury was caused by the pretentious and callous staging I had just witnessed or if my anger was a result of feeling robbed of the beauty of Williams’s script.
But I couldn’t agree more.
Thankfully, dinner at The Modern did a lot to compensate for what we had just witnessed. It certainly gave us plenty to talk about.
As is my custom, I ordered a martini before dinner. That got me thinking. Just like certain classic plays have no business being “reinvented,” the same holds true for certain cocktails, the martini being the prime example.
With the simplest of ingredients, the martini is sleek, cool, and seductive. It’s like someone poured a Maserati into a glass. Even the glass is elegant. It forces you to be deliberate in how you progress through happy hour. It forces you to be civilized. You must be careful not to spill any of the contents, guiding the glass slowly—but too much so—to your mouth while making a witty, but obscure, comment about Dorothy Parker. This is not some cheap whisky thrown over ice into a double old-fashioned glass at the 19th hole.
And then it all came crashing down. The martini’s simplicity became its first victim. What followed in the early Aughts was like so many bastards with claims to the throne. There was the ubiquitous "Apple-tini" with an electric day-glo green tinge that looked like it had been cooked up in a meth lab. There was the Chocolate-tini," the “Cinamon-tini,” and the Lemon-tini. The martini was corrupted because it was made complicated.
And this is what Sam Gold didn’t realize when he reinterpreted The Glass Menagerie. He forced complexity onto the audience. He gave his audience the theatrical version of an Apple-tini. The Glass Menagerie is a great and timeless play because Williams’ language distills all of our very sad human hopes, dreams, and fears into a drink that must be handled carefully and sipped slowly.
There are just some classics that don't work well unless performed in the vernacular.
And by the way, a vodka martini is not a martini. Enough said.