For a consecutive week, a musical collaboration between a mother and son takes center stage in midtown, presenting a striking contrast between the lighthearted revival of Mary Rodgers’s Once Upon a Mattress at Encores! and the Broadway premiere of her son Adam Guettel’s Days of Wine and Roses. The juxtaposition is quite the rollercoaster, with Mattress being buoyant and favored by junior-high theater programs, while Guettel’s musical interpretation of the 1962 film by Blake Edwards takes a darker, more adult turn—though it is undeniably a labor of love. Kelli O’Hara, the star of the show, proposed the idea of adapting Edwards’s film to Guettel two decades ago during their collaboration on The Light in the Piazza. Now, after an Off Broadway run at the Atlantic, the project has become deeply personal for the duo.
Despite the radiant performances of O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James, who plays a PR man of the Mad Men era, Days of Wine and Roses feels somewhat confined and lacking depth.
The story, set in 1962, explores the descent into alcoholism of Joe Clay (James) and secretary Kirsten Arnesen (O’Hara). While the material might have held more gravity in a time when excessive drinking was socially acceptable, the play’s thematic constraints are evident in today’s context.
The play, clocking in at 105 minutes, follows Joe and Kirsten’s journey into addiction with a certain predictability. The metaphors are underscored, and the narrative seems to point relentlessly toward its inevitable destination. Despite the complexity of Guettel’s score and the genuine chemistry between the leads, the play occasionally feels like an extended advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous.
While the love story is central, the symbolism of roses in the title is as crucial as the wine, even though Joe and Kirsten’s story revolves more around hard liquor than wine. The nursery owned by Kirsten’s father becomes a double symbol an attempt at growth and care, as well as a reminder of the fleeting highs of sensation.
The play’s score carries a certain richness, but director Michael Greif’s staging feels overly tidy and fails to fully embrace the voluptuousness in Guettel’s songs.
Despite the powerful performances, there’s a missed opportunity for the production to evoke a stronger emotional response. The staging, at times, seems restrained, and even in moments of passion and despair, it falls short of reaching the extremes that the narrative demands. The use of plastic flowers in the nursery, while practical, adds to the sense of detachment.
As Joe and Kirsten navigate their path to recovery, there’s a subtle sentimentality that creeps in, and the grand gestures at forgiveness may feel a bit overwrought.
Despite the personal journeys of the creators and cast members toward sobriety, there’s a desire for the play to go beyond predictability and delve into the complexities of the characters’ experiences. O’Hara and James possess the talent to leave audiences elated and shattered if given a show that allows them to fully explore the depths of their characters.