‘Days Of Wine, Roses’ As Musical For 2, Seen Through A Glass Darkly

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Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara in one of the happier moments in the musical ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ (Photos by Joan Marcus)

By being seldom seen, I could not stir

But like a comet I was wondered at.

            —Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I

NEW YORK — In 1995, the composer-lyricist Adam Guettel — grandson of Richard Rodgers and son of Richard’s daughter Mary, a composer in her own right — put himself on the map of the American musical with the short-lived off-Broadway cult hit Floyd Collins. In 2005, he followed up on Broadway with the surprise mainstream hit The Light in the Piazza. Two decades later, at the age of 59, he’s back with Days of Wine and Roses, which in summer of 2023 opened off Broadway with a limited engagement at the Atlantic Theater Company and has now moved uptown to Studio 54 for another (originally set to run through April 28, the show has posted a March 31 closing notice).

From the moment the show was announced, expectations were through the roof — and not just on Guettel’s account. For one thing, it marked a reunion with the playwright Craig Lucas, Guettel’s collaborator on The Light in the Piazza. (His creative partner on Floyd Collins was the playwright-director Tina Landau.) More importantly, from a box-office perspective, the bankable Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James had attached themselves to the project from the beginning. Broadway royalty, both had history with Guettel that went back many years. As a new face in town, James earned early spurs in the ensemble of Floyd Collins, the true story of the death of a spelunker trapped in a Kentucky cave in 1925. O’Hara broke out as Clara, the ingénue with a difference in The Light in the Piazza. With Days of Wine and Roses, Guettel has given them what amounts to a concerto for two favorite voices. The supporting cast of eight includes seven grownups who mill around and speak some lines but never sing. Which leaves only Tabitha Lawing as the stars’ little stage daughter Lila, who pipes along in a small way in three of the score’s 18 numbers.

The musical demands on James and O’Hara, who also shoulder most of the spoken dialogue, are never-ending. But while they share equal billing, O’Hara’s part is a lot more than equal. As has been evident since Floyd Collins, Guettel loves the aching purity of high, vibrato-free sopranos flying high in their range. There was lots of that for O’Hara in The Light in the Piazza. Here, there’s even more, and if it’s a technical challenge for her, it’s one she revels in. James, with his grainy bari-tenor, is likewise at the pinnacle of his game, matching her phrase for phrase. From the stars’ entrance together at the top of the show, the post-opening house on Feb. 2 was cheering them to the rafters. With seven solos to come, O’Hara went on to reap the loudest ovations, even though the most haunting ballad, “As the Water Loves the Stone,” falls to James — on the first bounce, at least. (She gets the reprise.)

Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara

“Two people stranded at sea, two people stranded are we…” It’s this wistful, jaunty couplet — repeated later but never developed into anything you’d call a song — that James and O’Hara’s characters present as their joint calling card. He’s Joe Clay (James), a young veteran back from Korea, clawing his way up the ladder in corporate PR as a junior account manager in charge of wrangling booze and party girls for clients from out of town. She’s Kirsten Arnesen, the big boss’ executive secretary, a Long Island girl who keeps her head down, corrects Joe’s spelling, and on the quiet craves the bright lights. Two people stranded at sea, figurative orphans, they’re blissfully happy together until their drinking makes their joie de vivre go smash.

Why this subject, you may ask. Why now? When dramatists have you in the palm of their hand, such questions may cross the mind from time to time — but not right away. First, you’re enthralled. Analytics come later. Such, at any rate, was the case with The Light in the Piazza, another story from the mid-20th century with little obvious resonance in the 21st. But the quirky story line, empathy for the characters, and Guettel’s fresh musical language swept any cobwebs of untimeliness aside. In Days of Wine and Roses, that’s not happening. It’s not so much that the material falls short on empathy or musical innovation. But the hackneyed narrative and evangelical tone keep the plane stubbornly on the ground.

Plus, there’s the claustrophobia. In The Light in the Piazza, Guettel weaves an operatic tapestry with room for a whole gallery of memorable characters. Sometimes, they even get to stop soliloquizing long enough to go ballistic in supercharged ensembles that feel like living theater. In fairness, Kirsten and Joe get to go ballistic, too, she in a drunken dance with a vacuum cleaner, he as he trashes his florist father-in-law’s greenhouse in quest of hidden liquor. But that’s not the same.

In the bottle veritas. It’s worth a detour to note that Guettel and Lucas based this second collaboration of theirs on a screenplay by JP Miller, a yeoman writer in Hollywood, that six decades ago had been produced not once but twice, in very short order. In 1958, John Frankenheimer directed a live TV version that starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. In 1962, an expanded script reached the big screen directed by Blake Edwards, with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in the leads. By the standards of the time, this was strong stuff — unsparing, frank, and courageous, for mature audiences only.

Between Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 1946 and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962, problem-drinking in America was quite the scourge du jour. But whereas O’Neill and Albee’s long nights’ journeys into ashen dawns of tortured self-delusion raised the theme to the plane of existential metaphor, Miller worked it more like Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, which is to say totally literally. Nor does it help that he spreads Joe and Kirsten’s agony across an imagined decade or more. At first, it’s Joe who leans on Kirsten to drink with him. Later, hideously, the tables turn. When their paths cross for the last time, Kirsten’s is tracing a Harlot’s Progress straight out of William Hogarth while Joe has gone the way of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim.

Joe (Brian d’Arcy James) and Kirsten (Kelli O’Hara) spend an inordinate amount of time in alcoholic stupors.

Ah, the ironies of counterpoint! She thinks she can control her addiction. He knows he can’t — and has a sponsor to read him the riot act when he starts backsliding. Never mind that O’Neill and Albee’s dramas are (much) longer than Days of Wine and Roses in any form. In compelling performances, those blockbusters play lean and mean, while Miller’s scenario feels sudsy and episodic. That’s not to say the material doesn’t pack a punch. Guettel takes it at face value, often departing from prosy storytelling to drift in ecstatic waves of pure vocalise that are almost a signature of his.

His chief achievement this time out lies not at all in songs that land like show tunes, though the euphoric number “Evanesce,” heard in Joe and Kirsten’s boozy honeymoon phase, does just that. His more distinctive gift is for using sound as a painter does brushstrokes, layering parlando and arioso vocal lines and plangent instrumental solos over a mercurial, often Glassian, rhythmic floor to evoke psychological nuances not to be captured in words. The band for Days of Wine and Roses employs, to kaleidoscopic effect, a complement of just eight players, on keyboard, piano, percussion, drums, reeds, bass, and trombone. Significantly, Guettel takes an orchestration credit, alongside his colleague Jamie Lawrence. As with Debussy and Janáček, whose influences Guettel often cites, the instrumental choices aren’t ornamental but of the essence. The conductor Kimberly Grigsby lets the band do its crucial suggestive work.

In this department, as in all others, Lucas and Guettel are handsomely served. Michael Greif’s production, flows cinematically, with suitable film noir touches. Hats off to Lizzie Clachan for her scenic design, Dede Ayite for the costumes, Ben Stanton for lighting, Kai Harada for sound, and Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia for choreography. And let’s hear it for a supporting cast that works hard for little glory, often deep in shadow. One who emerges to more conspicuous effect is Byron Jennings as Kirsten’s embittered, puritanical father, rightly on his guard from the moment she barges in on him in the dead of night with her husband of two hours in tow. Another is David Jennings (no relation) as Joe’s hard-nosed sponsor, who knows where his boundaries lie.