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Off Broadway Review: Days of Wine and Roses

Sobering Theater

Even a magnificent score sung by incomparable stars can’t make this show work. 

Kelli O’Hara and Brian D’Arcy James

While it may be a faithful adaptation of both the teleplay and the movie, Craig Lucas’ book for the new musical Days of Wine and Roses now at the Atlantic Theater, also has all the inherent flaws of both. It is mechanical and distant, more a documentary than a moving piece of theater.

That’s consistent with the 1958 teleplay, which debuted when alcoholism was seen as a lack of will or a moral failing, rather than a chronic, progressive, and fatal disease. The organization Alcoholics Anonymous was just over two decades old and had yet to achieve anything like national attention, despite some early news coverage.

Joe Clay, a mid-1950s PR guy is already a problem drinker at the outset. He hides his problem behind what he calls the demands of his job and bosses who require him to drink to excess to woo clients. He meets Kirsten Arnesen, who has never had a drink. Plying her with a Brandy Alexander, since she says she doesn’t like the taste of alcohol, she soon joins Joe on his booze-soaked downward spiral. After losing jobs, swearing to stop, backsliding, humiliations, and destroying relationships, Joe hits bottom (to use the AA terminology) and begins the long, slow, painful process of recovery. Kristen, on the other hand never escapes the grip of “demon rum,” and Joe is left with their daughter Lila in very reduced economic circumstances—but sober and soldiering on. The original movie and play, following on The Lost Weekend a decade earlier, were instrumental in helping the general public—and especially so-called “normies”—what alcoholism is. The text often sounds stilted, as if reading from the AA Big Book, the basic volume for recovery which often sounds arcane to a modern reader.

Didactic? Yes. Dramatic? Not so much. Or at least not today. The story feels dated to a contemporary audience that lives in a world where recovery is generally accepted and is in many cases a badge of honor. Lucas gives us very little cultural context outside the period set pieces and Dede Ayite’s precise costumes. As a result, when Kristen’s father (a powerful Byron Jennings) castigates Joe, spurns his offered amends, and calls him “evil,” it further distances the piece from modern sensibilities, particularly since we don’t see the impact of this rejection on Joe. That, ultimately, is where this show and production lack: neither the book nor the direction by Michael Greif finds any depth or believable humanity in these struggling, suffering characters.

The saving grace of this undertaking is the haunting and beautiful score by Adam Guettel. While it’s a far cry from the Henry Mancini score associated with the movie, Guettel’s songs and often lyrics that can be poetic or challenging,  capture both the manic hysteria of a drunk on a spree and the pained longing of a lost soul seeking salvation. Anyone familiar with his work from The Light in the Piazza and his song cycle Myths and Hymns will recognize some of his bold signatures and sophisticated harmonics. To hear these songs performed by Kelli O’Hara as Kirsten, who even at a matinee, sang with absolute purity, fearlessness, and sublime technique and Brian D’Arcy James as Joe with his gorgeous baritone is to overcome the weaknesses of the book. In this case, they are much better singers than actors, but that’s because the score gives them range and power they are denied in the book.

A final note in defense of Lucas. As it happens, book writers are often hamstrung in adapting a movie for a musical. The Playbill notes that the show was produced by “special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures.” It would not be surprising had he been limited in what he could do. Terrence McNally had to deal with Fox in adapting Anastasia; he wanted to do a lot more than he was allowed to. The opera based on A Streetcar Named Desire was hampered by demands from the Williams estate. So, who knows what the story is here. Lucas has received four Tony nominations, including for the splendid book of The Light in the Piazza, a show he also wrote with Guettel.

Ultimately, this is a difficult story to interpret as a musical, and the creators deserve praise for the effort and even approaching this challenging material. However they might have been served up, though, a few shots of something to warm up this entire affair would have been well-advised.

Days of Wine and Roses
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street
Tues, Thurs 7 p.m.; Weds, Fri, Sat 8 p.m.; Weds, Sat, Sun 2 p.m.
Single tickets from $122 here
1 hour, 50 mins, no intermission

Production photos by Ahron R. Foster
Published June 6, 2023