Cheers to the '30s

(Photos By Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Luke O'Neil
Globe Correspondent / October 23, 2009

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There has been plenty of attention given to “Sleep No More,’’ the interactive theatrical production from British company Punchdrunk and the American Repertory Theater. Rightfully so. It’s a chilling and unique sensory immersion. Of course, having a cocktail beforehand can aid in any theater-going experience. To that end, the production enlisted the help of La Morra, the Italian restaurant and bar, in constructing a 1930s London blues bar called Manderley in the old Brookline schoolhouse where the show takes place. You’d never know the space used to be a school cafeteria. The dark, slinky lounge - with plush velvet curtains, candlelight, and cafe tables - comes complete with a crack musical trio and lovely and talented hostesses in period character who double as singers with the band.

The cocktails here are period-specific as well, born of a history-minded collaboration between La Morra bar manager Jason Waddleton and owner Jennifer Ziskin. Most of the drinks are also being featured at La Morra’s cozily rustic bar.

Highlights include the Hanky Panky (Plymouth gin, sweet vermouth, Fernet Branca; below left; all cocktails $11 at Manderley, $9.50 at La Morra). This one comes from the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London, famous among enthusiasts for whom Harry Craddock’s “The Savoy Cocktail Book’’ is something of a bar bible to this day. Bartender Ada Coleman, as the story goes, was trying to mix something to impress the famed London stage actor Charles Hawtrey. When he first tried this variation on a sweet martini he proclaimed: “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!’’ The Italian digestif Fernet Branca, renowned among bartenders as a post-shift shot, is an acquired taste, but here it mingles beautifully in a bittersweet cocktail.

The Bennett (Hendrick’s gin, lime juice, orange bitters, honey ginger syrup) is a cocktail that was named in honor of Alfred Hitchcock’s screenwriting partner Charles Bennett, which is appropriate, as “Sleep No More’’ has been described as Shakespeare by way of Hitchcock. Here it’s made with honey ginger syrup instead of sugar, giving it a light spicy sweetness to go along with the citrus.

We were also pleased with their interpretations of the Churchill (Scotch, sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier, lemon juice), another old standard (Churchill was something of a drinker, you may have heard), and the Lima Basilica (Clementine vodka, lime juice, basil, simple syrup; below right).

“This was on our list at La Morra and the Punchdrunk folks fell in love with it their first time dining here,’’ Ziskin says of the latter. “There are many references throughout ‘Sleep No More’ to the symbolism of herbs and spices. Think the witches brew of ‘Macbeth.’ I think that was why they loved this drink so much.’’

Basil has been associated with different rituals and beliefs throughout the world, from love to hatred to Satan. Here in contemporary Brookline, along with the rest of the drinks on the list, it symbolizes an attention to historical detail that, like “Sleep No More’’ itself, transcends boundaries.

La Morra, 48 Boylston St., Brookline. 617-739-0007.

“Sleep No More’’ at the Old Lincoln School House, 194 Boylston St., Brookline. 617-547-8300.

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