Few movies-into-musicals are as excellent as The Light in the Piazza (2005), adapted from a romantic drama that starred Olivia de Havilland as a mother determined to make a match for her mentally challenged daughter (Yvette Mimieux). Odd, even unpromising material to be sure but onstage it soared, as lovely as it was piercing. Tonys went to Adam Guettel (the grandson of Richard Rodgers) for his score and Victoria Clark for her lead performance (she repeated last weekend for Kimberly Akimbo), highlighted by her rendition of the poignant “Dividing Day,” that rare standard birthed by contemporary Broadway. That Guettel and Craig Lucas, Piazza‘s nominated book writer, were reuniting for Days of Wine and Roses (coincidentally another film from 1962), was cause for hope of another aborning classic.

The bad news is, it doesn’t reach those heights. (See for yourself, perhaps, as Piazza gets an Encores! staging next week.) The good news is that Roses, Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, is far from a letdown, and graced by outstanding performances from a pair of our finest musical talents, Brian d’Arcy James (seen last season in a Tony-nominated turn in the Encores! Into the Woods revival) and Kelli O’Hara, a Tony nominee as the daughter in Piazza, and a Tony winner for The King and I in 2015.

JP Miller’s “Golden Age” teleplay, a cornerstone of scenarios that confront addiction, is strong material for actors. Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie starred in John Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90 production (1958) and Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick received Oscar nominations for Blake Edwards’ subsequent film. Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer won the Best Original Song Oscar for their theme, which leavens its bottom-of-the-bottle storyline. No such sweetener here; Guettel goes straight for the jugular, and the heart.

The show unfolds in New York City, 1950. Joe Clay, an aspiring “Mad Man” whose patter is fueled by liquid courage, makes an aggressive pass at Kirsten at an office party. It’s a clumsy move but Kirsten, sensing the awkwardness behind it, doesn’t shut him down. She’s a teetotaler but a Brandy Alexander supplied by Joe is enough for her to share pleasantries, then intimacies. Both long for relief from loneliness, he from PTSD brought on by serving in the Korean War and the death of his parents and she from being overprotected by her stern immigrant father (Byron Jennings). The carousing begins, followed by marriage and a daughter, Lila (an affecting Ella Dane Morgan), who we meet at age seven. In the blink of a lighting cue or two both Joe and Kirsten are now barely functioning alcoholics, unsteadily negotiating job loss, household accidents, and occasional fleeting periods of sobriety. How did it happen? To paraphrase Hemingway on bankruptcy, gradually, then all at once.

Musicalizing this is, needless to say, a challenge. Lucas and Guettel work so closely together a conversation or stray line will slide seamlessly into song, mostly reflecting the lucid if transitory states between drinks. (The titles include “Magic Time” and “Evanesce.”) With the invaluable assistance of a tight six-piece orchestra it’s almost entirely on the two stars to bring subtle, lilting, and despairing songs to life onstage, and so they do. You can’t turn away from James’s self-possession and self-delusion, which comes with a hint of pathos as he tries to sober up for his family. (If anyone’s planning a Nixon musical send it his way.) And O’Hara, who often plays “ladies,” is simply astounding here, revealing the hidden vamp and monster inside the nice Kirsten, enslaved by the vampire’s kiss of alcohol. These are ordinary people lost in an age-old problem, played extraordinarily well. (The director is Michael Greif, whose salient credit is the showier musical psychodrama Next to Normal.)

Mindful of how treatments have changed (Alcoholics Anonymous is no longer the only refuge) Guettel and Lucas wisely decided to keep the show in the past, and have cut some of the more melodramatic passages. (Joe’s sanitarium stay is only alluded to, though a flashpoint in his father-in-law’s greenhouse, a more elaborate set than expected by Lizzie Clachan, is retained.) The piece remains emotionally valid, however, right until its final sad scene. It’s a shame and a missed opportunity, however, that Lila doesn’t get to sing her mind for at least one number in the trim, intermissionless show. She joins her parents in song (they’re the only three characters who sing) but she’s the victim here, eerily accommodating their illness in a way that children forced to grow up must. Given a chance to expand Miller’s original canvas in a way that wouldn’t disrupt the flow, they decline. A pity, as the days of wine and roses are not Joe and Kirsten’s alone.

About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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