Although it is a story best known through the 1962 Blake Edwards film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, Days of Wine and Roses began as a 90-minute teleplay for the famous Playhouse 90 series on CBS back in 1958. This production returns to that original text by J. P. Miller and discovers some of the same restraint and credibility that distinguished it from the melodrama of the Hollywood version. Justin Stark is an excellent Joe Clay (as in “feet of”) and Allison Lucille gives an outstanding performance as Kirsten Arnesen, a young executive secretary from a Long Island farm who loses her balance and then nearly loses her life to alcoholism in the big city of Manhattan. The production, which has been directed by Matthew Talbott and designed by Patricia L. Frank, emphasizes the connection between the world portrayed by Days of Wine and Roses and the one currently popularized by the television series Mad Men through evocative music, back projections, and costumes. It’s a link that emphasizes both the particulars of the drinking culture of the early 1960s and the perennial issues posed by city life and corporate pressures.
When Joe and Kirsten meet, they are struggling to find their way at a cocktail party for a powerful client of the public relations firm where Joe works—a man who happens to be Kirsten’s boss. The awkward repartee they manage as they hover around the bar quickly yields to drunken bravado, and soon they leave the event together in a flurry of ill-considered sarcasms. Later that night, as they sit on a park bench finishing the bottle they have liberated from the party, we get our first glimpse of the trouble to come. Kirsten inadvertently leaves behind on the bench one of the cherished volumes from a set of the world’s great books, a gift from her father in lieu of a genuine college education.
As Arnesen, Kirsten’s long-suffering father, David Brainard is wonderful, registering multiple shades of pain and shame in a performance that gives the piece its touching center of emotional gravity. Arnesen tries everything to rein in the wild ways of his wayward daughter, even consenting to have the now-married couple come to his farm for a few months to work in the greenhouses and dry out. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Joe Clay gets back on his less-than-reliable feet, but Kirsten’s fate takes a bit longer to play out. This fine show deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in good acting or human frailty.