By: Samuel L. Leiter
June 13, 2023: “Temperance dramas,” so-called, remain alive and well. These, of course, are cautionary tales that first attained widespread success in the 19th century by presenting the hazards of substance abuse, designed to warn viewers of the dangers of overindulgence. Among the dozens produced were the universally known The Drunkard and Ten Nights in a Barroom.
Today, whatever the substance of choice, you can be sure there’s a drama du jour to depict it, no matter how familiar the story. Often, these begin with casual use turning to abuse, followed by the horrors of addiction shown in frightening physical detail as the audience witnesses the demolition of someone’s career, family, and health. Such works end either in a sentimentally positive turnaround or tear-jerking tragedy. Either way, you’re supposed to weep.
Within just the past two weeks I viewed, purely by chance, the movie To Leslie, about the fall and rise of an alcoholic mother; the play Wet Brain, about a father dying from the eponymous alcohol-induced syndrome; and, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, Days of Wine and Roses—an intermissionless, 105-minute musical adaptation of the similarly titled 1958 teleplay by JP Miller, starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, and its wrenching movie version of 1962, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick.
In temperance plays, meant to scare viewers away from alcohol or drugs, the abuse is not incidental to the drama—as in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, despite its frequent presence—but central. It is thus the principal subject around which the plot revolves, with everyone focused on trying to do something about it. Days of Wine and Roses, with its perfectly straightforward, well-made plot, is as pointedly temperance oriented as even Carrie Nation would desire.
In 1950, Joe Clay (Brian d’Arcy James) and Kirsten Arneson (Kelli O’Hara) meet at a company cocktail party, and go on a date to a restaurant. Joe, a smooth talking Korean War vet in public relations, induces Kirsten, an autodidactic secretary who doesn’t drink, to loosen up by trying a Black Russian. Anyone who doesn’t know at once what’s about to happen is either drunk or in need of a good stiff one. Sure enough, regardless of her distaste for drinking, Kirsten loves the cocktail’s sweetness and the high it inspires. Naturally, as she and Joe fall in love, they become increasingly dependent on far more potent liquids, which, for a time, helps juice up their marital relationship.
Despite the skepticism of Kirsten’s straitlaced father (soundly rendered by Byron Jennings), a landscaper, Joe and Kirsten marry; their drinking swells; they have a daughter, Lila (Ella Dane Morgan, endearing); Kirsten burns the house down; Joe’s bibulousness costs him his job; the marriage crashes; and Joe, who has custody of Lila, struggles to overcome his problem by acquiring an AA sponsor, Jim (David Jennings). Kirsten’s dad, though, is thoroughly fed up with Joe for ruining his daughter.
Joe relapses—big prop-tossing scene included—but recovers, yet for all his sincere urging, Kirsten finds it beneath her to seek help. Joe and Kirsten, still in love, find reuniting impossible, and Kirsten’s attempt to see Lila after considerable time apart proves problematic, bringing the dreary story to an end.
Just like its TV and cinema originals, this is depressing territory, made watchable and listenable chiefly because of the unforgettable performances of its leading actors. As in any drama about drunks who bring down their families with every gulp they take, there’s considerable room for histrionic expression. It’s heightened here not only by the circumstances of the story but by Adam Guettel’s (The Light in the Piazza) dramatic music and lyrics, supported by Craig Lucas’s (also The Light in the Piazza) book, a simplified adaptation of its sources, set in New York, rather than San Francisco.
Guettel’s music—brilliant enough in context but none of which I was particularly anxious to hear again—is designed both to help convey the narrative and, at times, to heighten its emotions to almost operatic levels. Unlike Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s Academy Award-winning title song for the movie, now a familiar standard, Guettel’s melodies are unconventional and their frequent dependence on soaring notes vocally challenging. This is music intended to be acted as well as sung. Much of it captures a sense of artsy 1950s modern jazz rather than the tunefulness associated with popular Broadway shows. While the score may satisfy the tastes of those with more sophisticated musical tastes than mine, and generally suits the temperament of the situations, its 18 songs fail to provide anything emotionally comparable to the kick in whatever it is the characters are knocking back.
There are nine actors involved but the only singers are the two stars, and, in several numbers, the child playing Lila. Guettel’s lyrics, which focus attention on the intense interactions of Joe and Kirsten, could not be more potently rendered than by Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara, two of New York’s foremost stage presences. Under Michael Greif’s sensitive direction—supplemented by a modicum of choreography handled by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia—their good looks, stunning acting skills, and dazzling voices of extraordinary range and power make Days of Wine and Roses worth a visit, even if it means swallowing the downer of a script.
Lizzie Clachan’s flexible set for this multi-scened work—one scene is only a few words long—combines neutral designs, like the panels meant to evoke a boat in the first scene, with more realistic sets, like a plant-filled nursery. Ben Stanton creates atmospheric lighting effects throughout, but Dede Ayite’s costumes, okay for the women, are—as so often—only approximations of what men of the period wore. Still, the show is attractive enough for its purposes.
As a temperance drama, Days of Wine and Roses offers an object lesson on the dangers of that ol’ devil rum. As a musical, it makes you thirsty for something with more of a sting.
Days of Wine and Roses
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 20th Street, NYC
Through July 16
Photography: Ahron R. Foster