Seldom have a pair of alcoholics looked as glamorous as they do in Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s bruised romance of a Broadway musical, “Days of Wine and Roses,” starring Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James as midcentury-modern Manhattan lovers free-falling all the way to hell, drinks in hand.
What’s astonishing about this show, though — aside from the central performances, which are superb, and Guettel’s anxious, spiky, sumptuous score, which grabs hold of us and doesn’t let go — is the way its devastating chic snuggles right up to catastrophic self-destruction.
For all the glossy come-hither of Michael Greif’s tone-perfect production, which opened on Sunday night at Studio 54, not for an instant does it glamorize the boozing itself. And yet we can sense the allure: how alcohol might become the one true thing that matters, smoldering wreckage be damned.
Adapted from JP Miller’s recovery-evangelizing 1958 teleplay and 1962 film of the same name, this “Days of Wine and Roses” is like a jazz opera melded seamlessly with a play. Deeper, wiser and warmer than it was in its premiere at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company last year, it is no longer so wary of melodrama that it’s afraid of feeling, too. Gone is the emotional aridity that kept the story at a strange remove.
Granted, the opening scene is still perplexing, too sparely written and staged to situate the audience properly, or let us grasp the skin-crawling 1950s creepiness of what James’s Joe Clay is up to on a yacht in the East River. A public relations guy, Joe has arranged a corporate party onboard, and procured female guests for the pleasure of the male executives.
So there is a certain rancidness to his mistaking O’Hara’s Kirsten Arnesen — the impeccable secretary to the boss at the firm where they both work — for one of the women in his Rolodex. Not exactly a meet-cute, even if she does set him straight, puncturing his condescension with a tight, nice-girl smile pasted to her face.
“How about a drink?” he sings, changing tack to what is, for him, default mode.
But she doesn’t drink, doesn’t like the taste, doesn’t see the point, whereas he doesn’t like to hear no. And she, apparently, for all her book smarts, doesn’t notice any bright red flags. He charms her enough that soon they’re out to dinner, where he pushes a sweet cocktail on her, cajoles her into trying it, wins himself a convert.
Then they’re off, headlong through this fast-moving, time-skipping musical, finding in each other the kind of love that becomes a refuge, and nurturing the anesthetizing addiction that they’ve built into their bond. By the time they marry, much to the helpless alarm of Kirsten’s taciturn father (Byron Jennings, etching a starkly beautiful portrait of heartbreak), she and Joe have become each other’s giggly, floaty, self-contained world.
They’re enormously likable, these two, especially Kirsten, who at the start is so clever, teasing and certain of herself, and coiled tight inside. On her first night of drinking with Joe, delighted by the buzz, she says it makes her want to run — and briefly she does, adorably floppy-limbed, all comic pleasure.
Joe’s appeal, far more evident when he’s sober, is harder to pin down; there is a desperation just beneath his gregariousness. But there is also the genuine, sustained, spottily successful attempt he makes to be good enough for Kirsten. And once they have their daughter, Lila, good enough for her, too.
But Kirsten, Joe and their ever-ready pal, alcohol, are the primary threesome of this tragedy, whose heady early days are a dizzying carousel of delicious drinks nights. You can feel the giddy high in “Evanesce,” the brightest, bounciest number in a score rife with discord, panic and longing.
The number gives the surface impression of a carefree life: this attractive couple having fun, dancing elegantly, she in a dress with a ’50s-fabulous twirly skirt. (Music direction is by Kimberly Grigsby, choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia, costumes by Dede Ayite.)
Listen, though, to the frenetic unease in the lyrics they sing — about being “two people stranded at sea,” “running with a knife,” “running for my life.” And to Joe’s blithely spoken line as he proffers Champagne: “Little evanescent bubbles erasing everything!” That enjoyable oblivion is the goal he and Kirsten keep chasing even as their lives get ugly, humiliating and very, very sad: a spiraling decline that endangers their child and their own union, too.
Yet this production, seductively lit by Ben Stanton on a set by Lizzie Clachan, never teeters into maudlinness or drunk caricature. When a temporarily sober Joe makes the decision to drink again, James plays it subtly — Joe’s surrender filled with an eviscerating shame that’s legible, but only for a flicker.
O’Hara, who starred in Lucas and Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza” on Broadway in 2005, is particularly sublime. Her nuanced and variable performance is as technically impressive and fully human in its acting as in its singing — and the singing is considerable. Of the show’s 18 numbers, she has 14, seven of them solos. In her crystalline tone are secrets of Kirsten’s soul that aren’t explicit in Guettel’s lyrics; when she sings “Sammen I Himmelen,” a kind of prayer as lullaby, to baby Lila, we can hear Kirsten missing her own dead mother.
Lucas and Guettel, who have spoken publicly about their own experiences with substance abuse, are not proselytizing here, as Miller was. But they do know something about patterns of addiction, familial fallout and inheritance. And how hope, often but not always illusive, figures in navigating the mess of that.
Lila (Tabitha Lawing), 8 years old by the story’s end, has spent her whole life as a witness to and casualty of her parents’ horrific dysfunction.
“We’ll be OK,” she reassures her worried father, and maybe they will.
But you can’t help wondering what all has been handed down.