Tonight the driest martini in America turns up where one might least expect it: on public television, which begins a series of three adaptations of John Cheever stories with "The Sorrows of Gin," a "Great Performances" offering at 8 on Channel 26.
Granted that few evils equal the evils of liquor, it's a pleasure nonetheless to encounter a good stiff drink in what is usually a quaint little tea shop. This production is accomplished and well-crafted in every way that counts; it is bracing, clever, smart, wise, pungently funny and deliciously sad.
It's the veritable happy hour on the veritable 5:10 to Shady Hill, the New York suburb where Cheever's people scramble, squander and eke out their lives.
"The Sorrows of Gin" sees this daft stab at living through the eyes of a 8-year-old Amy Lawton, who watches her parents fight and drink and try to hang on to cooks. If it isn't one thing, it's two things. And one night, there is such a fight over a missing bottle of hootch that the noise carries upstairs to Amy's room.
"The voices woke Amy," Cheever wrote, "and lying in her bed, she perceived vaguely the pitiful corruption of the adult world; how crude and frail it was, like a piece of worn burlap, patched with stupidities and mistakes, useless and ugly, and yet they never saw its worthlessness, and when you pointed it out to them, they were indignant."
To the ineradicable credit of writer Wendy Wasserstein and director Jack Hofsiss, they have preserved the spirit and the intent of such softly lilting passages. They have extended the life of Cheever's work, enhancing it rather than just illustrating it. It's a victory for everybody.
The actors are purely extraordinary, even as a list: Edward Herrmann as the father, Sigourney Weaver as the mother, Eileen Heckart as a sot cook, and Rachel Roberts as the embattled Mrs. Henlein, who takes magnificant umbrage at being accused of guzzling booze on the sly.
Herrmann's deftest moment is a tiny one; he has marched into the living room with one of his many nightly drinks and suddenly can't remember where he has put it. He looks like he is lost in space, like everything has for a split-second dropped out from under him.
But for all the formidability of the big-name cast, young Mara Hobel as Amy is quite rightly the most fascinating presence on the premises, whether mimicking her parents in the sanctuary of her own room (which naturally has its own television set), dutifully following the advice of a cook and pouring daddy's gin -- "filthy stuff " -- nimbly down the drain, or listening politely as her father mourns, "Amy, you know what happens when you grow up? You stop looking out the windows of airplanes."
This child is an angel. This production, crisp and bright on videotape, leans toward the heavenly.
Two more Cheever stories will follow on succeeding Wednesdays: "O Youth and Beauty!" next week and "The Five Forty-Eight" on Nov. 7. Some of the characters -- including the Lawtons -- pop up in more than one play, because all three are set in the Cheeveresque world of the lamentably, but not scandalously, overprivileged.
It is a world of Lacoste shirts and commuter trains and Little League tryouts and fear of crow's feet and station wagons and gin and rum and vodka and Scotch. If it is not precisely in every detail a real world, it is a reality as filtered through the eyes and heart of an artist, which is just the sort of perception television lacks more than any other.
On the simplest level, the Cheever stories on public TV are reminders that we can have drama without car chases, rapes, gun battles or, as in the case of too much public TV, with a British accent. The Cheever stories give public television its shiniest gold star of the season.