If not for the unbridled drinking, it might easily have been a screwball comedy. Just look at them: Kirsten, blondly beautiful with a tolerant smile and a quick riposte; Joe, curly-haired cute but too arrogant to grasp that he’ll have to up his game to win this woman.
Within moments of their meeting in 1950 in New York City, he bursts suavely into song — some presumptuous romantic blather about the two of them together under “a chapel of stars.” Whereupon she teases him right back down to earth.
“Wow,” she says. “Who are you wooing? It can’t be me; you don’t know me.”
This is the addiction-canon classic “Days of Wine and Roses,” though, so some of us already know them. In JP Miller’s luridly frank 1958 teleplay, starring Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson, and in Miller’s somewhat defanged 1962 film adaptation, starring Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon, Kirsten and Joe are the attractive pair who make a harrowing, hand-in-hand descent into self-destruction by way of alcohol.
In Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s jazzy, aching musical based on the teleplay and the film, Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James are an awfully glamorous Kirsten and Joe — O’Hara, in exquisite voice, singing 14 of the show’s 18 numbers, seven of them solos. Directed in its world premiere by Michael Greif for Atlantic Theater Company, this “Days of Wine and Roses” fills the old Gothic Revival parish house that is the Linda Gross Theater with glorious sound.
“Two people stranded at sea,” Kirsten and Joe sing sparely, hauntingly, in the brief and perfect prologue. “Two people stranded are we.”
So they are. But when they first meet, at a party on a yacht in the East River, Kirsten is a nondrinker primly uninterested in alcohol, while Joe is determined that she indulge, because then she can be his drinking buddy. That she acquiesces and then falls so far makes him her corruptor, or so her taciturn father (a wonderfully gruff Byron Jennings) will always believe.
“Get rid of him, Kirs,” he tells her when it is already too late. And anyway it’s the oceans of booze in their relationship that really need to go.
Lucas and Guettel, who mined the same midcentury period to great success in their 2005 Broadway musical, “The Light in the Piazza,” in which O’Hara also starred, have each spoken publicly of past personal struggles with substance abuse. Excising the heavy-handedness of previous versions of “Days of Wine and Roses,” and softening the details of Joe’s degradation, they go deeper into the heart-rending familial fallout of addiction.
Lucas (book) and Guettel (music and lyrics) occasionally presume the audience’s familiarity with the plot, or steer so far clear of melodrama that they veer into emotional aridity. But they also capture unmistakably the bliss that Kirsten and Joe feel inside their bubble of a threesome: just the two of them and alcohol, throwing a private party that goes on and on.
Not for these reveling lovers the swelling strings of Henry Mancini, who scored the film; in the cocktail-mixing song “Evanesce,” Guettel gives them bright, fast music, frenetic and danceable — and when they do a bit of soft-shoe in salt spilled on the floor, there’s a playful heedlessness to their sandpaper percussion. (Choreography is by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia.) This is the high that makes sobriety so unthinkable for Kirsten and Joe, even as their lives disintegrate.
Which they do, alarmingly, despite their love for each other and for their hyper-capable daughter, Lila (Ella Dane Morgan), who learns very young to look after herself, and to lie to cover for her parents. It’s Joe who finds the strength, eventually, to choose their child over alcohol, and Kirsten who feels abandoned by her husband, as she clings to what was their private world.
Affecting as O’Hara is, Kirsten is less fully drawn than Joe, whose back story makes him a recently returned veteran of the Korean War. (The combat flashback Joe suffers during one drunken binge feels gratuitous.)
Kirsten gets no such context, and consequently seems oddly contemporary, which makes the show, for all its ’50s design flourishes, feel unrooted in time. (Sets are by Lizzie Clachan, costumes by Dede Ayite.) Kirsten is aware of the sexism that pervades her era — she makes snappy reference to the minuscule number of female senators — but the show doesn’t entirely seem to be. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
There is no sense of the opprobrium that would greet a female alcoholic in the 1950s, let alone one who leaves her child, or the severe judgment that would be passed on a married woman who sleeps with strange men when she’s on a bender. Or how any of that would contribute to Kirsten’s own self-loathing.
Still, this “Days of Wine and Roses” has wells of compassion for her thrall to alcohol.
“Don’t give up on me,” Kirsten writes to her daughter. She might even mean it when she adds: “I’ll be home soon.”
Days of Wine and Roses
Through July 16 at the Linda Gross Theater, Manhattan; atlantictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.