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Mac Brydon and Laura Siner in a publicity photo
for Days of Wine and Roses
J.P. Miller's Days of Wine and Roses really must have been something when it was first produced on television in 1958 as part of the Playhouse 90 series (starring Cliff Robertson, Piper Laurie, and Charles Bickford) and then as a feature film in 1962 (starring Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, and Bickford again). Although Miller's drama about the gross indignities of alcoholism has its antecedents -- Come Back, Little Sheba and The Lost Weekend among them -- Days of Wine and Roses paints an especially ugly picture of lives consumed by drink.

The current staging at Walkerspace in TriBeCa is a revival of a production by the Boomerang Theatre Company that was first seen (but not by me) in 2000. Although the program and press materials are unclear on the matter, this is a stage adaptation written by Miller himself some time after the property was presented successfully on TV and as a film. Apparently, the stage version is infrequently performed, and it's not hard to understand why: Days of Wine and Roses ain't no day at the beach.

Told in flashback, the play begins at an AA meeting that serves as a framing device for the action. As Joe Clay (Mac Brydon) tells the story of how his marriage to Kirsten Arnesen (Laura Siner) was sundered by their co-dependant alcoholism, we are witness to the couple's meeting, courtship, and married life in episodic scenes that pack a real wallop. The members of the ensemble cast, first encountered as attendees of the AA meeting, doff their outerwear to play key figures in the story such as Kirsten's father, Joe's boss, and a neighbor lady.

The major minus of the Boomerang production is that it's performed in a challenging, three-quarter-thrust space dominated by a constructed playing area designed by Harlan Penn that resembles nothing so much as the deck of an old sailing ship. (Perhaps Boomerang should consider leaving this set up and modifying it slightly to serve as the basis for a staging of Moby Dick or Billy Budd -- or, on the other end of the theater spectrum, H.M.S Pinafore or The Pirates of Penzance.) The fact that the bulk of the audience is seated at one of the far ends of this structure, with but a single row of spectators on either side, means that we don't get full-frontal views of the players as often as we should. On the other hand, the plusses in terms of production values are Scott Davis's lighting (it can't have been easy to properly illuminate actors in this space) and Ernie Rich's sound design (which, you probably won't be suprised to hear, does not make use of Henry Mancini's gorgeous title song for the film version of Days of Wine and Roses).

Happily, the show is blessed with excellent actors in its leading male and female roles, directed with skill and sensitivity by Rachel Wood. Mac Brydon, whom I enjoyed in a production of Moonchildren two years ago, is even better here; he's one of those performers who can act in a wonderfully intimate, naturalistic style and yet clearly project his character's emotions to audience members seated quite far away from him. When Brydon does let go in order to show us Joe's loss of control during his drinking binges, it's chilling.

Laura Siner's performance as Kirsten seems physically unfocused during much of the first act of the play; perhaps partly because she's trying to avoid turning her back to any one section of the audience for any length of time, she shifts and twists around excessively while delivering her lines. But this becomes less of an issue as the play continues, and Siner really comes through in the scarifying confrontations with Joe that highlight the second act. In these scenes, both actors achieve a level of verisimilitude that's rare and powerful.

The supporting cast is inconsistent, as one might expect from a way-Off-Broadway production such as this one. Paul Schnee has some wonderful moments in his first speech as AA leader Jim Hungerford but, in later scenes, his performance suffers from a lack of intensity and eye contact. Similarly, though Wally Carroll is well cast and sympathetic as Kirsten's father, he seemed unsure of himself at certain points on opening night. But Ronald Cohen, John Flaherty, and Margaret Cohen create sharply defined character sketches of (respectively) Mr. Trayner, Rad Leland, and Mrs. Nolan, not to mention a number of other small roles. And Victoria Rosen is a delight in her few minutes on stage as Debbie, the young daughter of Joe and Kristen.

Oddly, the program specifies no time period for the action of the play; it's difficult tell if this production is set in the late '50s, the early '60s, or, for that matter, in the present day. Jessica Gaffney's costumes are non-specific in this regard. The dialogue contains a number of phrases that would seem to tie the action to the past -- but there were no cordless phones 40 years ago, as there are here, and some of the actors' hairstyles are incongruous to that bygone era. Days of Wine and Roses is certainly timeless in that alcoholism remains a serious problem leading to a great deal of misery, but the Boomerang Theatre Company's strong staging would have been even stronger if it were more definite as to when the story is happening.

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