Review: In ‘Days of Wine and Roses,' Two Souls Lost in an Ocean of Booze

A jazzy musical about a glamorous couple succumbing to alcoholism.

Review: In ‘Days of Wine and Roses,' Two Souls Lost in an Ocean of Booze

It could have easily been a screwball comedic film if not for the excessive drinking. Look at them. Kirsten is blondly gorgeous with a tolerant grin and a quick response. Joe has curly hair but is too arrogant.

He bursts into song within moments of their 1950 meeting in New York City. It was a presumptuous romantic blather that the two of you were together in a 'chapel of stars'. She then teases him back to reality.

She says, 'Wow'. Who are you courting? You don't even know me.

Some of us know the classic addiction film "Days of Wine and Roses" already. In JP Miller’s luridly honest 1958 teleplay starring Piper Laurie, Cliff Robertson and Jack Lemmon and Miller’s slightly defanged 1962 adaptation starring Lee Remick, Kirsten, and Joe, are the attractive couple who embark on a harrowing and hand-in-hand journey into self-destruction through alcohol.

Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James play a glamorous Kirsten & Joe in Craig Lucas & Adam Guettel’s jazzy, aching, musical based on teleplay / film. O’Hara is in excellent voice and sings 14 of 18 numbers of the show, including seven solos. Michael Greif, Atlantic Theater Company's director of the world premiere of 'Days of Wine and Roses,' filled the Linda Gross Theater in the Linda Gross Parish House with wonderful sound.

In the short and perfect prelude, Kirsten and Joe sing sparingly and hauntingly 'Two People Stranded At Sea'. "Two people are stranded."

They are. When they first meet at a party in the East River on a yacht, Kirsten, a nondrinker, is not interested in alcohol. Joe, however, is determined to get her to drink, so that she can become his drinking partner. She acquiesces, and then she falls, so Joe is her corruptor. Or so her taciturn dad (a wonderfully gruff Byron Jennings), will always think.

He tells her, 'Kirs, get rid of him', but it's already too late. It's not the booze that needs to be removed, but rather their relationship.

Lucas and Guettel have both spoken out about their own struggles with addiction. They have softened the harshness of the previous versions of "Days of Wine and Roses" and the degrading details of Joe, and delved deeper into the devastating effects of addiction on families.

Lucas (book), and Guettel, (music and lyrics), sometimes assume that the audience is familiar with the plot or avoid melodrama to the point of emotional aridity. They also capture the joy that Kirsten, Joe and their threesome feel in their private bubble: only the two of them with alcohol and a party that never ends.


The sandpaper-like percussion of the sandpaper-clad dancers is a fun, playful way to play with the music. The choreography is by Sergio Trujillo & Karla Puno Garcia. This is the high which makes sobriety unthinkable to Kirsten and Joe even as their lives are falling apart.

They do this despite their love and their child, Lila (Ella Dane Morgan), a hyper-capable girl who is taught to take care of herself and lie for her parents at a young age. Joe is the one who finally finds the courage to choose his child over alcohol. Kirsten, on her part, feels abandoned by Joe, and clings desperately to their private world.

O'Hara, as affecting as she is, is not fully developed like Joe, who has a backstory that makes him a Korean War veteran. The flashback to Joe's combat experience during a drunken binge is gratuitous.

Kirsten is not given this context and, as a result, appears oddly modern. This makes the show feel out of place, despite its design flourishes from the '50s. Sets by Lizzie Clachan and costumes by DedeAyite. Kirsten may be aware of the sexism of her time -- she makes a snappy comment about the small number of female senators in the Senate -- but it doesn't seem that the show is. Warning: There are spoilers ahead.

It is hard to imagine the disdain that a woman alcoholic would receive in 1950s America, much less one who left her child. Or the harsh judgments that would be made against a married women who slept with stranger men while on a binge. Kirsten was unable to see how all of this would have contributed to her own feelings of self-loathing.

This 'Days of Wine and Roses" has a lot of compassion towards her alcohol addiction.

Kirsten's daughter writes: 'Don’t give up on my,' she tells her. She may even be serious when she says: "I'll return home soon."