Sass Without Savor: Faena's Reimagining of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Photo courtesy of Faena Theater
Faena Theater's production of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.
Entering the gorgeous Faena Hotel for its new production of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover begins with a descent into a foyer, the hotel's Saxony Bar. It's full of guests and actors, the latter disguised as waitstaff for the show's setting — Le Hollandais restaurant — into which the Faena Theater has been transformed. Interestingly designed, the show borrows two colors — red and green — from Peter Greenaway's 1990 film of the same name (starring Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon) and creates a stage amid the audience and a bathroom behind the curtain in the distance.

As guests are seated and treated to hors d'oeuvres and champagne, a violinist, cellist, and pianist play instrumental versions of '70s and '80s tunes. The action begins abruptly when the Thief (and new owner of Le Hollandais), Albert; and His Wife, Georgina, enter the restaurant and cause a scene. The two are in a troubled relationship, and his dominance over her is interrupted by the Cook (who, in this production, seems to exist solely to announce the next course from the preselected menu), addressing the audience and characters alike. Also intervening are musical numbers that feature the faux waitstaff dancing and singing cabaret-style, as well as the Lover (an intellectual and bookshop owner named Michael), who begins an affair with Georgina soon after the audience receives its appetizer.

Early on, a character notes Le Hollandais is "a place where indulgence and opulence shake hands," and that is precisely what this production of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover — adapted for the stage by producer James Orange, director Andrew Panton, writer Scott Gilmour, and chef Michelle Bernstein — goes for. Rather than resembling Greenaway's film in any form beyond surface level, Faena's show leaps toward spectacle that would suit a Broadway production of one of Baz Luhrmann's films. It's a cabaret show through and through despite being billed as a mind-bending production.

To be clear: It does entertain and offer a delicious meal (from the ceviche to the duck to the delightfully inventive dessert choice).

There's an irresistible charm that comes with dinner theater, of being treated to a show that happens as you feast, à la Medieval Times, and it's difficult not to be engrossed by the talented ensemble that weaves its way through tables while singing and fighting and smashing your dessert in front of your face. It's why, when Kristin Guerin and Parker Murphy (the Wife and His Lover, respectively) strip down to their undergarments to dance across the room and consummate their love to Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere," you can't help but stare in awe.

It's the kind of show that embraces camp: It's macabre moments (a fork stabbing the face, for instance) are turned up to 11 and acted out so spectators who didn't fork out for a meal can find glee in what they're viewing, and dramatic beats are interrupted by something as ridiculous as the ensemble performing Celia Cruz's "La Vida Es un Carnaval." But as entertaining as this absurdity is, one must ask: What of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover as an adaptation?
Bernstein's food will certainly sit well in your stomach (if you've purchased a dinner ticket for $230 to $280 instead of a spectator ticket for $95 or $120), but the experience of watching this production as someone who has watched the film is unsettling. Long gone is the nuance — the exploration of the relationships that entangle these four people. No doubt the stage show borrows bits and pieces from the film, including dialogue (primarily Albert complaining about Georgina and a few of her exchanges with Michael), but it strips the script to its bones: There is a cook serving meals, a thief mistreating those around him, and a wife and her lover having an affair.

It maintains the coy glances between the Wife and Her Lover, but in limiting itself to one meal (as to play into the concept of dinner theater), it loses the subtle ways the cook ratchets up the romance between them, particularly the beautiful way he serves the pair identical meals that only two characters with an elevated palate would enjoy and allows them to consummate their love under the Thief's nose. The show certainly grasps the carnal desires that come with an affair, but it doesn't take the time to explore Michael and Georgina beyond that, with only the slightest hints she's attracted to his intellectualism.

When a relationship is broken down into song and dance, it misses the tender exchanges in a world that seems to offer no solace from pain. "How can I know that he loved me if there were no witnesses?" Georgina asks the Cook (who, in the film, is well aware of the affair and encourages it). His response: "If you loved him, that does not seem to be a very necessary question." There is no such moment in the show, because despite Greenaway's world being ripe for the stage — each individual scene and set existing as though it is its own production — Faena's show is more preoccupied with ensuring the audience has a good time.

As Albert's character in the film notes, his establishment is one of "strictly no filth, only class," and Faena's production tries hard to maintain that concept. The problem inherent with this is that it misses the point of the filth that is eternally present in Greenaway's film. By removing the filth — the shit smothered on the lower class by those with money and power, the rotting carcasses of pigs and fish, the bruises that cover Georgina's body from Albert's abuse — you remove the heart of the story: its distinct critique of class and its exploration of how the rich devour everything around them.

The reduction of a film overflowing with social commentary that remains as relevant as it was 30 years ago — particularly in an era when our nation is being led by a man who, like Albert, espouses anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual viewpoints — into a cabaret show that hinges on passive engagement with morbidity and sexuality is misguided at best and completely antithetical to the core themes of Greenaway's marvelous film.

As hotel owner Alan Faena himself notes in the playbill: "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover... struck me as a masterpiece, a work that pushed cinema to a new type of artistic language." It's a shame that, in Faena's admittedly unique adaptation, the production loses everything that made it special, resulting in a beautifully produced but woefully shallow simulacrum of a stunning work of art.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday Through April 2020 at the Faena Theater, 3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 786-655-5742; Tickets cost $95 to $280 via Ages 18 and up.