‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is a feelbad musical pickled in alcoholism
The Daily Beast
June 5, 2023
In “Days of Wine and Roses,” Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James play against their charm as a couple addicted to alcohol, their lives in toxic freefall. Plus, “The Comeuppance.”
The most effective current advertisement against drinking—indeed a stark, brutally cautionary story of alcoholism—is a 95-minute musical. Days of Wine and Roses (Atlantic Theater, to July 16), directed by Michael Greif and based on the play by JP Miller and 1962 film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, is unusual for so many reasons, not least for being that rare creature, a feel-bad musical (actually, make that a feel-really-really-bad musical).
What also distinguishes it are its Broadway royalty-level, award-garlanded stars, Kelli O’Hara and Brian D’Arcy James (Tony-nominated this year for Into the Woods), who are more familiar to audiences for playing good or engaging lead characters. Instead, here they play a couple on a relentlessly degrading, depressing, downward spiral. As Kirsten Arnesen and Joe Clay, at least for the first 10 minutes, they represent the kind of sexy partnership who would ordinarily fizz and shine—both are attractive and charming performers—but in Days of Wine and Roses they fall to pieces in front of us, the most toxic of partnerships in free fall.
The book by Craig Lucas, and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, do not try to bring any kind of musical theater levity to the piece; Days of Wine and Roses is a precipitous ski run of addiction and misery, and its raw display of both reverberated among the audience this critic sat among.
Polite, muted applause greeted the jagged, puzzling songs (a more rousing one greeted d’Arcy James as Joe sang his vow to finally give up the demon drink). He and O’Hara sing beautifully, but it’s hard to applaud any of their songs and anguished arias as they chart this couple’s destruction. There are outbreaks of cheery choreography (by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia) that similarly feel like cheery balloons at a somber funeral. Around me people sighed, as Joe and the even more self-destructive Kirsten sank lower and lower, making one terrible choice after another.
We meet them first in 1950 in New York, Joe back from serving in Korea and now a glad-handing PR man. A full glass is always in his hand. Kirsten, a coolly glamorous executive secretary, says she doesn’t drink: “I don’t much see the point.”
“Makes you feel good,” says Joe. “I already feel good,” she responds. Then he orders a Brandy Alexander for her, and that’s it—the poison has been injected. Soon, she is feeling its effects. “I had no idea what people were talking about, this [feeling… UH!] … I want to just… I want to run, I want to … break the speed limit …”
On that first night, the booze makes everything glisten, especially as their romance is fresh, but then the musical takes us through different tableaux from the years of their imploding marriage. A drunken, work-stressed Joe shouts he doesn’t want to sleep with a fretful baby, he wants to sleep with his wife. We see Kirsten singing a loopy ditty as a daytime-smashed housewife whose carelessness with a match almost kills her and their daughter Lila (Ella Dane Morgan).
One flaw in the show is seeing the roots of Joe’s addiction clearly—PTSD from Korea, work pressures, trying at life so hard—but less so with Kirsten. Is her descent just because of the gateway drug of that Brandy Alexander? Is it Joe’s behavior in their marriage, or the demands of motherhood, or grief for her dead mom, or a mix of the above? Is it a physical addiction getting more and more out of control? The underpinnings of her alcoholism and unhappiness-drivers are less clearly sketched than his.
Joe and Kirsten try to get sober, but then slip, with Joe smashing up his father-in-law’s greenhouse looking for stashed booze. Joe gets well, Kirsten gets worse (a special shoutout to David Brian Brown’s hair design which charts these shifts with polished and unkempt looks). Joe gets sober, with the help of the patient, sage-like alcoholic Jim (David Jennings), then Kirsten tempts Joe back to the dark side. She tries to get better, and then can’t: “The world looks so dirty to me when I’m not drinking. I’m sorry. Don’t forget me!” she says, as her exit line.
O’Hara and D’Arcy James are absolutely committed to playing the hell of being Kirsten and Joe—and not twinkling, not making them palatable or nice when drink has them in its warping grip—though this a tough musical not just to watch, but also to gel with. The couple are terrible for each other. We do not want them to be together; we feel, as Kirsten’s father (a thunderous Byron Jennings), they should be very far from each other, even allowing for the love they share, underneath all the empty bottles, for Lila.
Their songs are like shards of glass, flashes of memory and pain, and determined cries of defiance. It is a rough jigsaw of elements, perhaps necessarily so given the subject matter. Rather like A Little Life, there’s a porny prurience about watching things get terrible, then even more terrible—but, like that latter show, this becomes more an unbearable than compulsive proposition as things go from bad to worse to twelve-alarm grim.
The theater production does end, meaningfully differently, to the film—with a hint of a positive-ish future, or at least a declaration of intent to make it better. It’s a meager crumb, and absolutely in line with the uncompromising spirit of the show. You may leave the theater wanting a stiff drink, then end up ordering a chamomile tea.
There are elements of The Big Chill about Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play, The Comeuppance, directed by Eric Ting (Signature Theatre, to June 25). A group of friends from high school reunite twenty years after graduation in a Maryland suburb—and a few years since they all last saw each other.
Tonight is their 20th high school reunion, and members of the self-defined “Multi-Ethnic Reject Group” are meeting at Ursula’s porch (Brittany Bradford) before heading off to the main event. Booze and spliffs are consumed, laughs are had, silliness erupts, flirting bubbles up, jealousy, pain, anger, and dark memories resurface, truths are told. Ursula has concocted powerful jugs of booze, which will fuel the emotional kindling of the evening as the group interrogates who they were, and who they are now—with twisty litanies of marriages, relationships, children, jobs, ambitions, secrets, and lies.
Jacobs-Jenkins has grander intentions than just reuniting this group of friends—played with a beguiling naturalism by Bradford, Caleb Eberhardt (Emilio), Susannah Flood (Caitlin), Bobby Moreno (Francisco), and Shannon Tyo (Kristina). For one, as well as wrestling with personal demons, references to 9/11, the COVID pandemic, wars, and the political and cultural flashpoints of the last 20 years, Jacobs-Jenkins makes clear this is a play about a generation that feels adrift and harmfully stunned by what the world they have grown up into.
Closer to home, Emilio is furious to see Francisco and Caitlin reconnect romantically after what he feels of helping Caitlin clear up the damage done in high school when they were in a relationship. Emilio’s fury is the powder keg of the play—especially as he rounds on former soldier Francisco, even as the latter lies prone after having a fit.
Then there is Death.
Death is a character in the show whose distorted voice we hear first and last through Emilio, but who speaks through the other characters too. Death is there to remind us that fate and time will ultimately do for us all. In one great speech, Death tells us that during COVID it had noticed humans had not only become more aware of its near presence than ever before, but also that that presence had made people generally nicer for a time. What happened to you all since that softening time, Death asks us wryly, as it turns its attention to one particular character on stage as the lights come down.
Gently gripping and rangingly ruminative, The Comeuppance is a story of a generation trying to outrun its demons—and, while losing the race in increments with a stopwatch clicking remorselessly on, still running the race with as much intent, irony, and substance-aided bravado as it can muster.