By Tulis McCall
I am trying to remember when I last saw two actors go through their paces as if they were Olympic Athletes.
I have often thought there should be an event, in addition to the various theatrical awards, called Theatre Olympics. Actors would all perform the same scenes, songs, monologues or soliloquies. And they would be judged on that particular performance. Were this a real thing, Brian D’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara would walk away with every prize there was.
Watching O’Hara and D’Arcy James in “Days of Wine And Roses” is both thrilling and exhausting. These two thoroughbreds navigate this difficult and overwritten score with grace and self assurance. Every song that O’Hara sings is an aria. D’Arcy James takes on his music with the precision of a fencing master. This is a master class in every way.
For those of you who don’t know, the story and this script is straightforward. It is the 1950’s in New York City (Madmen era) where the men drink competitively and the women are meant to go along or get along, or belly up to the bar themselves. Joe (Brian D’Arcy James) and Kirsten (Kelli O’Hara) meet at an office party on a yacht where he mistakes her for a call girl – odd that because she is reading a book – Draper’s Encyclopedia of Self-Culture, Volume Four. The book and its presence remains unclear other than is is a sort of chaperone for the couple’s relationship. After some sparring on the yacht, they pretty much fall for one another on the spot. She is a bright, very smart woman bursting with life, who has just had her first drink because of Joe and rather likes it. He is a veteran caught between the disappointment of the Korean War and a job that demands more out of the office than it puts in. His crutch is liquor, which he defends because the boys in the office expect him to drink. What he doesn’t admit is that it also dulls the pain of living a life of disappointment.
What Kirsten reminds him of is that there is love and possibility out there.
Until the drinking takes over. Under Joe’s tutelage Kirsten, who has never had a drink before, begins to drink a LOT. It makes her feel dangerous and she likes that. In one scene Joe brings home whiskey, champage and tequila and they drink all three while singing and dancing. Not believable but we go along with it. Soon the drinking has escalated to the point that their home is set on fire. They retreat to Kirsten’s father’s house. Arnesen (Byron Jennings) owns a greenhouse (those of you familiar with the story know where this is going) and for a few months they find refuge, even though he blames Joe for introducing his daughter to liquor.
Everything goes fine until it doesn’t. The two easily slip back into drinking one night and Joe nearly dies of alcohol poisoning.
The final chapter of the story deals with Joe tackling his drinking with the aid of AA – a relatively new organization in the 1950’s. Kirsten rebels against that path, which she considers a pathetic betrayal, and leaves Joe to be a single father to their daughter Lila (the charming Ella Dane Morgan).
To be certain, this is an odd choice for a musical. The writers take on a dangerous topic – and that is brave. I think they wanted to show us the underbelly of this beast of alcoholism and its ability to overwhelm the most well-intentioned among us. This show succeeds in doing so.
Were it not for D’Arcy James and O’Hara, however, there would be no “there” there. To say this musical is overwritten is an understatement. It is, however, not the book that is top heavy, it is the score. The songs are disjoint and repetitive. I don’t know how these two actors remember where they are in each because the songs have no standard locations of placement – like a beginning, middle and end. Each number could easily be cut by 50% and we would still get the point. But it feel as though Mr. Guettel does not trust his own writing and instead insists on repetition rather than specificity.
This predicament was obvious from the start, but so compelling are the performances of D’Arcy James and O’Hara that we are willing to follow them anywhere. The straw that broke me came in the near to final scene when Joe was making a sandwich for Lila while she sang a duet of letter reading between her and Kirsten. A few bars into the song I realized that I was more interested in what was in the sandwich than what was being sung. That is a damn shame.
Days of Wine And Roses – Book by Craig Lucas, Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel, Directed by Michael Greif, Choreography by Sergio Trujillo& Karla PunoGarcia, Directed by Michael Greif, Based on the play by JP Miller and the Warner Bros. filmProduced by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre
With Brian D’Arcy James, Kelli O’Hara, Steven Booth, Sharon Catherine Brown, Bill English, Nicole Ferguson, Olivia Hernandez, Byron Jennings, David Jennings, Ted Koch, Ella Dane Morgan, Elena Shaddow, Scarlett Unger, and Kelcey Watson
Through July 16 at Atlantic Theater, Lind Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Tickets HERE