Monday, April 1, 2024

Singing Drunks: Days of Wine and Roses

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine and Roses. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

At first Days of Wine and Roses, written by JP Miller, was a ninety-minute drama on Playhouse 90 in 1958, at the height of the era of live TV drama, starring Cliff Robertson as a corporate drunk and Piper Laurie as the woman he falls in love with and turns into a fellow alcoholic. The tragedy is that while he finally gives up the bottle and gets his life together, she can’t stop – she winds up choosing booze over both him and their little girl. At this point not many viewers remember the original, which is distinguished by Laurie’s complexly delicate performance. (You can watch it on Prime.) But the 1962 movie, directed by Blake Edwards, is justly famous, for the performances of Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as the couple, Joe and Kirsten Clay, and Charles Bickford, repeating his role as Kirsten’s rough-hewn Swedish papa, is quite fine. The narrative is a conventional addict story but its unadorned quality lends it a certain authenticity, and Lemmon isn’t as showy as he is in other dramatic roles; he may be responding to Remick, an underappreciated actress whose modesty is one of her virtues.

In the new stage musical, adapted by Craig Lucas with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, which just closed on Broadway (it premiered at the Atlantic Stage Company last spring), Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara played the sodden Clays, and it’s hard to imagine two actor-singers who could have been more effective in the parts. James gets Joe’s hail-fellow-well-met affability but with an understated desperation that’s there from the opening party scene, where, as head of public relations at the agency where he and Kirsten both work, he’s expected to supply not just liquor but also women for clients; there’s a subtle suggestion that he imbibes not just to have fun but so he doesn’t have to think too much about the seedier side of his job. Drinking loosens him up but when, in the early days after their daughter Lila (Tabitha Lawing) is born, Kirsten eases off and he feels he’s lost his playmate, it can also make him angry. He explodes in the scene – famous in Lemmon’s version in the film – where, when he’s convinced her to cheat after a domestic near-disaster has kept them sober for a couple of months, he can’t locate a bottle he’s hidden in her father’s greenhouse. Partly because as an actor James has a sweetness and gentleness, his fury in this sequence, which takes in the boss who fired him for drink-fueled irresponsibility, is surprising and upsetting.

O’Hara has appeared in many musicals, most memorably Guettel and Lucas’s The Light in the Piazza (it was she who persuaded them to write this one for her) with Victoria Clark, the City Center revival of Brigadoon opposite Patrick Wilson, and the adaptation of the film Far from Heaven, an unfortunate notion except for her. She has also been excellent in The Merry Widow and The Hours at the Met and she does the best (and most effortless) sustained acting on Julian Fellowes’s period TV soap The Gilded Age. O’Hara has the most expressive soprano of anyone currently on the musical stage; even when she’s not quite right for a famous musical-theatre role (Babe in The Pajama Game, Ella in Bells Are Ringing) or even dead wrong for it (Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate), she knocks some familiar ballad – “The Party’s Over” or “So in Love” – out of the park and makes you feel you’ve never quite heard it before. None of her previous characters has asked her to go as dark as Kirsten, and in the second act, when she loses her grip on her life and her seductiveness with her husband acquires a mean, chilly timbre, O’Hara is brilliant and finally terrifying.

Michael Greif has staged the show expertly on a terrific set by Lizzie Clachan, and the superb character actor Byron Jennings does wonders with his few scenes as the father. The problem is that, though I think Guettel is a magnificent songwriter, here his score doesn’t make much of an impression except for one ballad, “As the Water Loves the Stone,” and his lyrics are rather flat. (This is his first score since The Light in the Piazza in 2005, which I think it the best show music of the twenty-first century.) I’d say it isn’t Guettel’s fault. You can hear that he’s searching for a way to stay faithful to the style of the material, but it doesn’t release his high-flying romantic inventiveness – the legacy of his grandfather, Richard Rodgers – as that musical did. He gives his two stars plenty of opportunity to demonstrate what they can do both vocally and emotionally, and that’s not nothing. But to draw on a cliché about some musical adaptations that don’t work, the JP Miller drama simply doesn’t sing.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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