Days of Wine and Roses Redux

I first reviewed this play at Atlantic Theater, June 2023. Not much has changed with the worthy piece but for a few unnecessary, staging bells and whistles and one principal cast member (an improvement).

It’s not difficult to unwittingly slide into alcoholism. Throughout history, artists have been drawn to the romantic premise that alcohol taps into one’s subconscious, helping perceive and depict the world differently, energizing creativity. In some cultures, every important event offers license to excessively imbibe out of tradition and a sense of occasion. Drinking together has become an essential way to bond. Biologically suppressing frontal cortex activity and increasing endorphins tends to make people lose inhibitions.

This can be convivial or coercive. “George Washington first won elective office in 1758 by getting voters soused. He’s said to have given them 144 gallons of alcohol, enough to win 307 votes and get a seat in Virginia’s House,” reports Kate Julian in her Atlantic article, America Has a Drinking Problem. There are those whose chemistry dictates the craving through genetics. Science declares this a 50 percent higher risk factor and cautions awareness. And there are, or perhaps more accurately were, professions that entailed frequent entertaining of clients requiring drink. In the fifties, this was common practice. Film and literature are full of examples. One of these is Public Relations man Joe Clay.

1950 New York. Joe Clay (Brian D’Arcy James) is an ambitious young man whose advertising PR duties include regular drinking with and procurement for clients. Acting in this capacity, he mistakes the boss’s secretary Kirsten Arnesen (Kelli O’Hara) for one of his “girls.” Kirsten is a fresh faced farm girl who doesn’t drink, but is not completely naïve. Finding Joe attractive, she suggests they go elsewhere to dinner. (In the film of the same name, Joe doggedly pursues her.)

They get along. Joe asks what she particularly enjoys if not liquor. “Chocolate,” comes the blushing response. Her suitor then plies Kirsten with Brandy Alexanders. By the time they get to the water’s edge near her apartment, both are happily drunk and romantically entangled. Revealing personal information includes her attraction to danger, foretelling things to come.

Compressing time, Joe then returns to their apartment announcing he’s been promoted to Junior Manager. They celebrate, presumably on successive nights, with excessive alcohol. She takes him home to her father who owns a nursery. It’s late, she’s been lax in calling. Mr. Arnesen (Byron Jennings) is concerned about his daughter’s citified behavior. “The girl had a fine mother who taught her how to be good.” He’s skeptical of the morality of Joe’s job. The meeting is brief, less than welcoming. The couple had just wed.

Kirsten has baby Lila. Joe comes home increasingly loud, late, and drunk, sometimes lighting into her. Despite protesting alcohol will affect her milk, she reluctantly pours herself a glass. Liquor gains leverage. Joe is exiled to Texas, one step short of being fired. Raising Lila (Tabitha Lawing) more or less alone, Kirsten increasingly turns to a bottle. Preternaturally mature, Lila fends for herself. One night Kirsten gets tanked, narrowly averting tragedy. Joe returns home without a job and resolves to get clean. The route is filled with obstacles.

It’s difficult to play drunk on stage with veracity. From initial giggly tipsiness (Kirsten) and acclimated buzz (Joe) to brain-soaked psychosis, O’Hara and D’Arcy James inhabit the insidious disease. The Clays seesaw. A second culpable disaster occurs. (Studies show that 40 to 60 percent of alcoholics relapse within 30 days of sobriety, 85 percent within the first year.) It’s like watching the sinking of the Titanic.

Director Michael Greif took on a great challenge. Kirsten’s downward spiral leaves us breathless. She might be a neighbor, a relative. Joe’s descent and attempted self-rescue is notably personified by uncharacteristic destructiveness, moments of tensile temptation, exhilaration, and horror. Joint binges palpably connect them. Kirsten curls in while Joe strikes out.

Playing an important role in their lives, Mr. Arnesen represents what’s traditional and good in society. The excellent Byron Jennings makes Kirsten’s father sympathetic, rather than cold. There’s love in his words and actions, even when stern. A breaking heart lies behind dignity and stoicism. 

As Lila, Tabitha Lawing is just right and looks her age. Atlantic’s production featured someone who appeared to be older. The young actress exudes concern and pluck.

David Jennings’ portrayal of Jim Hungerford, an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, is utterly grounded. When the actor’s in a scene, manifest chaos fades. At one point, during Jennings’ attempt at preventing Joe from going to Kirsten, we almost see him draw a line in the sand. He’s exactly what a sponsor should be.

Brian D’Arcy James handles stringent vocals unlike his usual musical theater material with resonant clarity and skill. The actor wears self-recrimination and anxiety like a bespoke coat. He radiates love and tenderness for Kirsten. Deranged parentheses are alarming. Ability to convey wrenching choices and helplessness is potent. Upon second viewing, I find vocals more confident, violence less credible.

Trained as a classical and opera singer, Kelli O’Hara is more accustomed to vocal demands of this ilk. Equally at home in musical theater, here she has the opportunity to showcase virtuoso ability. O’Hara’s voice is simply gorgeous. Kirsten’s journey from wide-eyed optimist to the wracked shell of a woman under the influence is harrowing.

Director Michael Greif capitalizes on the chemistry of the leads. Surprisingly, no Intimacy Director is listed. Perhaps choreographers Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia worked with him on this. (Dancing in the living room is splendid.)The protagonists’ physical familiarity feels natural.

Stage direction is rife with small surprises: A half lit party indicating lifestyle has guests circulating while carrying not just drinks but bottles; correspondence between mother and daughter deftly overlaps. Stand out parentheses include Kirsten’s cleaning the house while soused – careening from manic cheer to despair, a playful strip, and, later, a reeling seduction. In this production, a table on which Kirsten and Joe dance rises from the floor as disco bubbles fill the theater. A case of overkill.

Notes: The night I returned, O’Hara left behind her handbag (hooked to a railing) when she left Joe to go home. A woman at the bar during Kirsten and Joe’s first restaurant tête-à-tête distractingly stares at them for no viable reason. Orchestra visibility is also particularly distracting throughout.

The multi-talented Craig Lucas has crafted a book that accordions the original play/film without losing a feeling of passing time and inexorable change. His characters are recognizable. Lucas interjects the devastating piece with love and even playfulness. It’s raw and honest. Lines like Kirsten telling Joe her mother was as if made of linen. “You were afraid she’d rip,” and Jim, Joe’s AA sponsor, remarking he’d be lucky if she didn’t come home – shine.

Like Kirsten, Adam Guettel is apparently drawn to risk. Wrangling this piece into music and lyrics must have been like climbing a glass mountain. Vocal narrative is symbiotic with the book; many “songs” emerge conversational; character and situation are always defined. Guettel’s signature, meandering, opera-like music tenaciously holds the story together while moving it forward. The work is compelling.

Sound design by Kai Harada is pristine except for Tabith Lawing’s singing which might be raised in volume to be heard in her duet with O’Hara.

Lizzie Clachan (sets) creates two volubly different apartments, a seedy hotel, and a move-right-in greenhouse. Evocation of a boat is clever. Neon city signs seem out of place to the tenor of the production. Effective lighting by Ben Staton ranges from wonderful skies to a musky hotel room.
Dede Ayite’s costumes reflect era, class, income, and personality.

The production is powerful, moving, sobering.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Days of Wine and Roses
Book by Craig Lucas
Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Directed by Michael Greif
Based on the play by JP Miller and the Warner Brothers film
Produced by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theater Ventures

Studio54 Theater

About Alix Cohen (1720 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.