Days of Wine and Roses, the long-awaited second collaboration of playwright Craig Lucas and composer/lyricist Adam Guettel reunited with soprano Kelli O’Hara after their Tony Award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza is now having its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. Based on the acclaimed 1958 Playhouse 90 teleplay by JP Miller which starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie and his own 1962 screen adaptation with the Oscar nominated performances of Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, Days of Wine and Roses attempts to musicalize this story of a couple who destroy each other through alcoholism. The original films scarily depicted the depth of alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, despite the care taken in Michael Greif’s production, this version is more interested in telling the story of Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen than in wallowing in the problems of their addiction.
Set in New York in the 1950’s as was the teleplay (the movie was reset in California), Days of Wine and Roses introduces us to Joe Clay (Brian d’Arcy James), a Korean War vet, now an alcoholic public relations man who also obtains women for parties for the executives. He mistakes Kirsten’s (Kelli O’Hara), the boss’ secretary, for one of the party girls and takes her to dinner to make up for his gaffe. However, he is looking for a companion in his drinking and she has never taken a drop. She does love chocolate so he has her sent a brandy alexander and that does the trick and she becomes addicted as well. They marry without telling Kirsten’s father first (a taciturn and disapproving Byron Jennings giving the best performance) and set up a home. By the time their child Lila is born they are drinking to excess and Kristen falls asleep setting their apartment on fire with her lit cigarette.
They move in with Kirsten’s father and work in his nursery. Unfortunately, after one month they fall off the wagon and Joe wrecks the greenhouse searching for his hidden bottle of liquor. After a stint in the hospital, Joe is helped by Alcoholics Anonymous and his sponsor Jim Hungerford (David Jennings) but Kirsten refuses to have anything to do with AA. Her drinking becomes so pronounced that she disappears for days at a time. When Joe goes to find her, she attempts to get Joe to be her companion in booze. And eventually, Joe is left to bring up Lila alone.
Lucas’ script remains faithful to Miller’s teleplay (with the excision of Joe’s delirium tremens in the psycho ward or his second hospitalization) and much of the dialogue is actually Miller’s. However, the problem is the score. Guettel’s 18 songs (including four reprises) are often atonal, unmelodic, unrhymed and don’t scan. While this is true of the Tony Award-winning The Light in the Piazza that score had such a lush sound that it was automatically romantic and appropriate for its story. Here it is almost as though Guettel is striving for opera but without the orchestral underpinnings to make it so.
The lyrics are mostly recitative, abstract and metaphorical. Aside from three songs in which Joe or Kirsten are joined by their seven-year-old daughter Lila (played by Ella Dane Morgan), only the couple sing, with O’Hara given seven solos. The real problem is as Stephen Sondheim said about his musical Do I Hear a Waltz?: these are characters that wouldn’t sing so the only way to solve this is to have made Days of Wine and Roses an opera with a great deal of orchestral music. Here the songs do not add anything to the story. Like Marvin Hamlisch’s score for the stage version of Sweet Smell of Success, Guettel’s music is devoid of atmosphere, period or otherwise, unless this is the fault of the orchestrations by Guettel with additional orchestrations by Jamie Lawrence.
O’Hara and James are among our finest musical theater performers we have and look a good deal like Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon did in the movie. However, here they have little or no chemistry which makes it difficult to believe in Joe and Kristen’s love story. Playing a woman who sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism, O’Hara is always too immaculate to believe she is on the skids as if she fears looking shabby or depraved as Piper Laurie did in the television version. Her pristine voice also works against her character, never really sounding drunk. James gives a solid performance as the weak willed Joe, but the script is curtailed due to all the songs that it does not give him time to develop his character. It is almost as though the musical is written in a shorthand that allows for speedy transitions. No one in the show has our sympathy, neither Joe’s weakness, Kirsten’s stubbornness, her father’s rigidity, nor Jim Hungerford’s preachiness though all the actors try hard to give it their all.
Lizzie Clachan’s scenery begins with blue screens which continually group and then disappear, leaving a brick wall used for the Clay apartment and the Arnesen nursery. After that pieces of various scenes are left on stage for quick transitions as the locales recur but leaving the stage looking cluttered. On the other hand, the lighting by Ben Stanton tends to be dark as though the entire show takes place at night which is suitable for the story line. Dede Ayite’s costumes are in solid colors (except for Kirsten’s dressing gown) so that they add no color to the production, almost suggesting both black and white films. While Days of Wine and Roses is an ambitious and formidable attempt to musicalize this cautionary tale, ultimately it does not solve the problems inherent in the material.
Days of Wine and Roses (through July 9, 2023)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-989-7996 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission