The Days of Wine and Roses | 1hr 40mins. No intermission. | Atlantic Theater Company Linda Gross Theater | 336 W 20th St | 646.989.7996
It’s back . . .
The Days of Wine and Roses, the most brutally honest and intensely harrowing work about about the tragic effects of alcoholism since The Lost Weekend, and one of the most powerful, praised, and unforgettable plays from the Golden Age of live television drama, has returned to the New York stage in a daring new form. It is now . . . wait for it . . . a musical!
More about that later. First, for anyone who is just now hearing about The Days of Wine and Roses and might innocently think it’s a new idea, some background: It originally debuted on the night of my birthday, Oct. 2, in 1958. I remember watching it with horror and awe, a devastating triumph written by JP Miller, an esteemed member of the inner circle of television dramatists in the days when the medium still had a higher value than counting the ratings and selling pap to the masses.
Highest on television’s list of cultural achievements was Playhouse 90, a richly rewarding weekly drama series on CBS that brought the greatest writers, stars and directors into living rooms throughout America with original productions of everything from The Miracle Worker and The Great Gatsby to adaptations of works by William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. A series highlight was The Days of Wine and Roses, with electrifying performances by Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. Rave reviews and an unsparing demand for more led to the hit movie version four years later with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick.
Now, 61 years after that, we’ve got another incarnation at the Linda Gross Theater of New York’s highly regarded Atlantic Theater Company. I am pleased to report it still works. I am disappointed (but not surprised) to say it does not work as a musical.
It arrives with impressive credentials. The score is by Adam Guettel, who is as much of a draw as the piece and its history, but his reluctance to write anything melodic or memorable enough to invite a dreaded comparison to his immortal grandfather Richard Rodgers robs the show of anything that might be labeled beautiful. Call me old school or old fashioned, but I like musicals with songs composed of clever verses, moving harmonies, and resonating refrains. I loved the music he wrote for his career-changing Light in the Piazza, but what he’s written here is bluntly conversational, often consisting only of a paragraph, without musical punctuation. The narrative is a sad treatise on the stark festering of love by self-destructive obsession. It wouldn’t hurt to insert a love song. But with titles like “The Story of the Atlantic Cable” and “As the Water Loves the Stone” it’s a show that fails to touch the heart in any significant way.
Mr. Guettel remains one of the theater’s most promising talents, but in my opinion, his musical strength remains untapped and his rigidly sophisticated lyrics could benefit from the shedding of an occasional tear or two. There are 18 songs and four reprises in this show, catalogued helter-skelter in 100 intermission-less minutes, and none of them have the time to develop into much more than distractions.
Maybe that’s why Craig Lucas’s revision of JP Miller’s original book seems so truncated. With so much music, there isn’t much time for emotional intimacy, regret, or romantic delusion. The outline remains intact: Hard-drinking success story Joe Clay (Brian d’Arcy James) works such long, hard hours that when he meets lovely, smart executive secretary Kirsten Arnesen (Kelli O’Hara) at a cocktail party, he thinks he’s found someone to fill the spaces in his lonely, unrewarding life. Trouble is, she doesn’t drink. “I don’t see the point,” she explains. “It makes you feel good,” he insists. “I already feel good,” she counters. As tipples go, she prefers chocolate. So he convinces her alcohol is not all bad and stars her off with brandy Alexanders.
It’s not long before she moves on to Johnnie Walker and does a soft shoe on the salt from margaritas, singing a song called “Morton Salt Girl.” As we watch the tragedy ensue they marry happily, she has a baby, his work load increases and he comes home exhausted and dry, but he doesn’t want to drink alone, so she gives in to keep him company and gradually. Dead drunk, she sets their house on fire, he loses his job, they neglect the baby, he tears up her father’s greenhouse, and eventually they hit rock bottom, the marriage dissolves, she turns into a bum, near death from alcohol.
He eventually finds salvation in Alcoholics Anonymous while she refuses to seek help. He equates the program with redemption, and she labels it a source for betrayal. Although they never achieve anything like the impact of Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, the two stars give it all they’ve got, and Ms. O’Hara gives it even more than that, shining through the best performance of her stage career and singing like a dream. Alas, despite the good work on display and the taut direction by Michael Grief, interrupted by all those musical numbers, they never get a chance to bring two pitiful characters to life with the necessary concentration I would prefer.
As a ruthless account of the fate that wrecks the lives of decent people, this is a grim, graphic, and demanding play, but as a musical, I watched them suffer but just wasn’t able to suffer with them the same way. In The Days of Wine and Roses, there’s plenty of wine, but you won’t go away humming any roses.