Off-Broadway Review

Compressed Roses

The potential was there: a musical based on Days of Wine and Roses, the searing 1962 film detailing an alcoholic couple’s smash-up and painful partial road to recovery. The creative team and cast are impressive. The score is by Tony winner Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza, grandson of Richard Rodgers and son of Mary Rodgers), the book by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Blue Window), direction by Michael Greif (Rent) and to star two of the brightest musical performers on the boards today—Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara. So why does this intimate chamber piece now at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross theater Off-Broadway feel so small and slight?

Days of WIne and Roses
Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara in Days of Wine and Roses.
Credit: Ahron R. Foster

Probably because Lucas’ book compresses JP Miller’s original screenplay (which was in turn based on his own 1958 teleplay) into an intermissionless running time slightly over 90 minutes. In the film, we follow the couple’s entire detailed story and experience the depth of their shared and individual journeys into addiction. As played by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in career-best performances, Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen run the gamut from eager newlyweds to falling-down, bender-loving drunks to neglectful parents to estranged partners with Joe joining Alcoholics Anonymous and Kirsten refusing any outside help as she stumbles on and off a rocky path to sobriety. We don’t see as much of their courtship or their early life together as in the film. In addition, the heaviest dramatic moments such as Joe frantically searching for a hidden booze bottle in his father-in-law’s greenhouse and subsequently suffering from the DTs in a rehab center, so shatteringly limned by Lemmon, are abbreviated here and have little impact.

Days of Wine and Roses
Byron Jennings, Brian d’Arcy James, and Kelli O’Hara in Days of Wine and Roses.
Credite. Ahron R. Foster

Guettel’s music is light, frothy and jazzy when Joe and Kirsten are boozing it up, to convey their heady, reckless intoxication. Greif accentuates their giddy abandon by turning the stage into a funhouse with help from Lizzie Clachan’s flexible set and Ben Stanton’s colorful lighting. But apart from a solo for Joe, “Forgiveness” and a reprise of the same song for Kirsten, there is a lack of deep musical expression of the couple’s conflict and anguish. James and O’Hara endow their roles with as much subtext and shading as they can, along with their customary exquisite vocals but Lucas’s script feels rushed. O’Hara is particularly powerful as Kirstin descends into drunkenness. James skillfully depicts Joe’s struggle to quit drinking and reclaim his sanity.

Byron Jennings is a much stricter and sterner presence as Kirsten’s gruff Norwegian father than kindly Charles Bickford in the movie. This adds a lot of subtext to the proceedings and explains why Kirsten may be having a rougher time getting sober than Joe. Ella Dane Morgan delivers a mature performance as Joe and Kirsten’s young daughter who learns not to count on them. David Jennings has understated, subtle moments as Joe’s no-nonsense A.A. sponsor.

Days of Wine and Roses
Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James in Days of Wine and Roses.
Credit: Ahron R. Foster

Greif turns in his usual fast-paced, fluid direction with Clachan’s sets and Stanton’s light achieving a cinematic flow with a wide variety of settings. Perhaps the staging is too cinematic, moving rapidly from one vignette of alcoholic stupor to another without letting us linger over the emotional carnage. The Days pass too quickly here to savor the wine or appreciate the roses.

Days of Wine and Roses: June 5—July 16. Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 330 W. 20th St., NYC. Running time: one hour and 45 mins. with no intermission. Tickets.

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