theater review

Patterns of Addiction in Days of Wine and Roses and Wet Brain

Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James in Days of Wine and Roses.
Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James in Days of Wine and Roses. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

I should start out by talking about Kelli O’Hara’s voice, which is the diamond at the center of Days and Wine and Roses, itself a jewel box of a musical. She sings with such clarity and control, making difficult bits of chromatic recitative look easy, in a way you might take for granted, up to the point where she will hit an emotional swell, open up her soprano, and throw sunlight across a horizon’s worth of clouds. The first of those moments comes early on in Adam Guettel’s score as she ascends to the stratosphere in a solo called “There Go I” as she sings, “danger / hazard / make me happy / they make me happy / don’t know why.”

O’Hara plays a secretary named Kirsten, seduced in that moment by Brian d’Arcy James’s PR executive Joe, newly returned from the Korean War and a hard drinker. She abstained from alcohol before meeting him, but he convinces her to start drinking, and they both become hooked. The musical’s based on the teleplay by JP Miller, aired as part of the anthology series Playhouse 90 in 1958, and the 1962 film adaptation starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remnick. A hit at the time, introducing many Americans to a clearer understanding of addiction, the film is also straightforwardly didactic, with a schematic plot — Joe convinces Kirsten to drink, addiction derails their lives, he tries to recover as she has more difficulty — that the musical struggles to expand. Still, you can see why this group, who have all excelled in mid-century contexts, wanted to try. (Guettel himself is also in recovery.) Most notably, O’Hara worked with Guettel and book writer Craig Lucas on the shimmering The Light in the Piazza (and it was during workshops for that when she first suggested this story to them), and now, nearly 20 years after that musical’s Broadway premiere, this marks their grand reunion.

Guettel’s score is worth waiting for, even constrained by the directness of the premise. Aside from a few moments with their daughter (Ella Dane Morgan), Joe and Kirsten are the only characters who sing, and Guettel has written O’Hara and James a range of styles, from operatic aria-lets to pitter-pattering imitations of jazzy jingles (the Morton Salt Girl recurs as a metaphor). James has the slightly less showy role than O’Hara, but he sets the tone early on in a song called “Magic Time,” schmoozing his way through a yacht party with drink in hand, slick as his sibilance. If the air and light were key to Piazza, here we get allusions to water and darkness: Joe loves Kirsten, in one song, “As the Water Loves the Stone,” which develops a dense ladder of images that follows from the stone and the water to the stone loving the wind, the wind the raincloud, and the cloud returning to the water below. It’s a cyclical description of love that’s fascinating in the context of the patterns of addiction, and Guettel sets it over a restless melody that keeps wandering around in your head long after hearing it.

It’s a pity then, when Days of Wine and Roses falls back from those moments of searching ambiguity into the prosaic. The characters around Joe and Kirsten — played by an ensemble of actors who take on several roles as relatives, sponsors, employers, partygoers, and other figures — are often dully right to the point (“your wife likes danger, so what? That’s not why she drinks,” says Joe’s sponsor). Michael Greif, directing, has gotten rich performances from James and O’Hara, but his staging, with the two of them often squished into the center of the Atlantic’s already small stage, the band above them on either side, and troughs of water in front of them, gets claustrophobic. Lizzie Clachan’s sets, full of large translucent panels that are perhaps meant to evoke mod styling but just made me think of Dear Evan Hansen, are unnervingly synthetic.

All this kept me at a distance from the emotions Days of Wine and Roses intends to find. Kirsten and Joe’s dissolution, though telegraphed and executed with precision, is more abstract than gutting. You can see the rails of the plot too clearly, one character trading positions with another, and that distracts from seeing them fully as a people and from a more complex understanding of the disease. The approach is decorous. As the show neared its end I wanted more of that thing Kirsten herself sings about: Danger.

If Days of Wine and Roses errs toward precision, Wet Brain is here to take the opposite tack, throwing everything at the wall, including extraterrestrials. John J. Caswell Jr.’s play, inspired according to the playwright’s note by his own relationship with his father, kicks off as Ricky (Arturo Luís Soria) returns from New York to Arizona to see his ailing father (Julio Monge), who has become nonverbal and dependent on alcohol. Ricky’s sister, Angelina (Ceci Fernández), has been caring for their father, but is fed up with the experience and is planning to move out, while their macho brother, Ron (Frankie J. Alvarez), shows up occasionally to go through the pantomime of taking their father to work at the auto-body shop.

This is a play that’s comfortable leaving a lot of gaping wounds bleeding while still being quite funny. All three siblings have inherited addictive tendencies from their parents, expressed through their relationships with food, alcohol, or other drugs, and they all alternatively try to support one another but then drag them off the wagon. They prod with the specific, overfamiliar, triggering rudeness of siblings — “I was homophobic way before you turned gay, and I’m supposed to change?” Ron tells Ricky — and all are self-deceiving about their own faults. Director Dustin Willis (Wolf Play) has all the performances amped up to 11, fitting the manic quality of Caswell’s writing, though to the point of abrasiveness. These are tough people to sit with, even in their nicer, quieter moments, and those quieter moments are few and far between.

From Wet Brain, at Playwrights Horizons. Photo: Joan Marcus

Balancing that aggression, however, is supernatural horror. Between scenes of the three siblings reuniting and fighting, there are other strange happenings around their father’s house. There are flickers of possible messages from the television. The set, by Kate Noll, is cloaked in darkness (via lighting designer Cha See) in a way that reminded me of The Comeuppance and Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Between scenes, the stage shifts back and forth on a turntable, like the house is trying to move, while the trees above its roof seem to grasp at the characters. Early on, their father stumbles into the kitchen and tries to cut a glowing gem out of his body. As it happens, you’re not quite sure whether what you’re seeing is real or part of his delusions, and neither thought is comforting.

Soon enough, as the siblings continue to prod each other and their father’s illness worsens, Caswell flips open the play into full sci-fi. He builds to a sequence that answers many of the questions raised by the moments of horror early on, but in its own roundabout and wryly bonkers way. In doing so, he also shifts gears to reveal a surprising sweetness, which lingers even as the play sets itself back down in Arizona. I won’t spoil what’s coming, nor could I attempt to explain it, but it all provides a way for the play to reach out beyond the patterns these characters are trapped in, and see something hopeful out there in the stars.

Days of Wine and Roses is at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater.
Wet Brain is at Playwrights Horizons.

Patterns of Addiction in Days of Wine and Roses & Wet Brain