Days of Wine and Roses Review. Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James as alcoholics

The breathtaking performances by Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara in “The Days of Wine and Roses” are enough justification for this stage adaptation of the sad, dark story about a couple who fall in love with alcohol – originally a 1958 teleplay starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, then a 1962 film with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. 

But there is also a brilliance that suffuses Adam Guettel’s score, and periodically poke out in Craig Lucas’s book, that make any shortcomings I might see in the show feel irrelevant.

Booze is front and center in the story from the get-go, although we might not realize this when we first meet Joe Clay (James), a mid-level public relations executive recently returned from the Korean War, who is on a yacht docked along the East River, greeting women aboard who, we soon understand, have been hired as escorts for Joe’s clients.

“They’re waiting to host you,” he tells one of the women.
“Hoist me, did you say? “
“Well, anything for a lift,” Joe says, raising his glass.

When Joe first sees Kirsten (O’Hara), he mistakes her for one of these women. He doesn’t recognize her, but she knows who he is. She is his boss’s secretary. He tries to be sociable. She’s politely cool to him, more amused than bemused.  He offers her a drink. She doesn’t drink, she replies. “I never have. I don’t like the taste.”

“The taste,” Joe sings. “It’s for the fun.” 

He asks her what she does like. Chocolate, she replies.
So he orders her a Brandy Alexander (which combines crème de cacao with cognac.)

If Joe uses his charm, and alcohol, to win Kirsten over, Guettel employs his own tool of seduction – jazz.

The jazz is wide-ranging and embodies the arc of the story – from the swinging (and maybe sleazy sounding) jazz that accompanies the joy that Joe and Kirsten take in each other (fueled by alcohol) to Andrews Sister-like harmonies to Brubeck-like cool to a be-bop breakdown. The lyrics complement the sounds.

In “Evanesce,” in the first flush of their romance (with each other and with booze), they sing, accompanied by a soft shoe routine, of how they’re “two corks just bobbing around…in the Long Island Sound.”

Kirsten: I’m leaning out the window I’m running with a knife 
Joe: I’m riding on an arrow I’m running for my life 
BothWhat’s the worry. I have you now. You are all I need 

They are simultaneously aware of, and oblivious to, their recklessness. (What are corks used for except for liquor bottles?)

In “Are You Blue,” when the joys of alcohol are souring, Kirsten sings a solo:

“Are you getting down so low there is nowhere else to go?”

Then forcefully answers her own question: 

“Hell no!
Not me!
I’m a bright and shiny top
and I live on booze and be-bop”

And then lets out a string of nonsense sounds — seh-dle-doo-dle did-dle-doo-dle did-dle-doo… Language has disintegrated, and so has her life.

The book by Lucas largely follows the story in the film, although much toned down – there is no scene of Joe in  a straightjacket going through delirium tremens in a sanitarium – and with some literate touches. A bedtime story that Kirsten reads to their child Lila  is about Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods, for which Zeus punishes him by chaining him to a rock “and every night an eagle came and ate his liver” – his liver, the organ most affected by alcoholism.
Water is also an ever-present motif. When they first meet, Kirsten looks out over the river and says: “If you look close, it’s filthy; I always watch the middle where it’s clean when I’m down here.” Water makes an appearance in the musical (as subject or prop or setting) almost as frequently as booze, provoking enough contemplation of it  — how it can envelope you but also  isolate and disorient you; lift you up or weigh you down; how it can clean you up and drown you — to fill up a smart term paper for an English literature class.

This is not to say “The Days of Wine and Roses” only offers cerebral pleasures. I can’t pretend that alcoholism as a subject directly resonates for me personally in the way it may for others (such as members of the creative team: Guettel has been open about his struggles; at one point, he has said, “I was an abject, drug-addled wretch, shades drawn, not eating, watching TV all day.”) But the performances are solid, giving emotional heft on stage to lives that the script tends to present in shorthand (we go quickly from romance to parenthood to despair.)  

The splendid performers include Byron Jennings as Kirsten’s father who is taciturn and no-nonsense but also quietly concerned about his daughter, and Ella Dane Morgan as Lila, a child who has learned to be self-sufficient in the face of her parents’ neglect.

Of course James and O’Hara, among the greatest living musical theater performers, are the heart of the show. They credibly track their characters’ emotional journeys, which are dizzying and unsettling, reflecting self-satisfaction, engagement, jubilation, wariness, neediness, fury, frustration, denial, recklessness, repentance, resoluteness, resentment, relapse… They are also (with the exception of a few measures by Morgan) the only ones in the nine-member cast who sing. That is plenty. Their voices, especially O’Hara’s piercing soprano, fill that small theater; make it vibrate.

No, the Academy Award-winning title song from the movie is not in the musical. And, as exquisite as Guettel’s score, it would be hard to claim any of the songs to be hummable – many come closer to the recitative rather than the arias of opera. Nor would many consider the story uplifting

Life doesn’t always hum or uplift. Why should every show? This one, nonetheless, is exhilarating.

Days of Wine and Roses
Atlantic Theater through July 16
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $112 – $172
Book by Craig Lucas based on the film by J.P. Miller
Music, lyrics and orchestrations by Adam Guettel
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreographed by Karla Puno Garcia and Sergio Trujillo
Set design by Lizzie Clachan, costume design by Dede M. Ayite, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Kai Harada, music direction by Kimberly Grigsby
Cast: Brian d’Arcy James as Joe, Kelli O’Hara as Kirsten Arnesen, Byron Jennings as Arnesen, Ella Dane Morgan as Lila, David Jennings as Jim, Sharon Catherine Brown, Bill English, Olivia Hernandez, Ted Koch

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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