A couple’s downward slide into drink is anatomized with acuity and skill in “Days of Wine and Roses,” the J.P. Miller teleplay-turned-film here refashioned by Belfast dramatist Owen McCafferty as a tale of Celtic cultural displacement and growing marital despair. Unrelievedly grim on the way to an outcome in which, perhaps surprisingly, the woman fares even worse than the man, play survives a late plunge into bathos thanks to Peter Gill’s typically keen-eyed direction and outstanding perfs from Anne-Marie Duff and, especially, Peter McDonald.
The material, of course, remains best known not from the 1958 “Playhouse 90” special, with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, but from the subsequent Blake Edwards film, which brought 1962 Oscar nods to both Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. And whatever else McCafferty’s shrewd adaptation is or isn’t, drama students will seize upon the immensely playable double-act he has devised — though it’s likely to be quite some time before anyone offers as penetrating and emotionally translucent a portrait of the male half of a morose equation as McDonald accomplishes in his career-making turn here.
The actor isn’t as well known as his able distaff partner, Duff, late of popular U.K. TV series “Shameless.” But in an evening fraught with thespian pitfalls, from a potentially meet-cute opening to an extremely sticky soliloquy late on that marks the writing’s only real misstep, McDonald doesn’t slip once.
A bookie’s clerk who first espies Duff’s civil servant Mona at Belfast Airport in 1962 as both prepare to experience for the first time “the bright lights” of London, McDonald’s Donal is charm incarnate, all dancing-eyed enthusiasm. He’s the sort, in fact, whom you wouldn’t say no to a drink from, even if — as is true of Mona — you never previously touched the stuff.
Out of Mona’s first swig ensues a gathering spiral of despair that will have devastating consequences for their marriage, their (unseen) son and their initially enchanted view of London, which by play’s end has almost become too small to contain two such wounded, wounding people. (The play is as compressed as McCafferty’s 2003 National Theater “Scenes From a Big Picture,” with its cast of 21, was unwieldy.)
Donal’s great love is for the races, specifically the now-fabled Irish racehorse Arkle, whose every stride Donal rapturously reports. It’s a shame, then, that the real-life horse, who died in 1970, has to provide not just texture and color to what might have been a claustrophobic exercise but must come to embody the very heroism of which Donal and Mona fall so tragically short. McDonald rides out such passages like a consummate jockey before bringing the play back on track and toward a belated toast “to health and happiness,” which, in context, could not be more ironic.
How did such an expansive vision for two shared lives fall so bruisingly apart? McCafferty steers thankfully clear of psychobabble, just as Gill’s expert staging avoids the clichés of drunkenness. Instead, the nine scenes progress across eight years, various clues as to the couple’s dependency planted like so many landmines. Embracing “my new start” with innocent recklessness, Duff charts the gathering defensiveness that accompanies Mona’s embrace of the bottle.
One doesn’t have to be aware of the much-discussed binge drinking besetting Britain at the moment to be deeply moved by Mona’s lucidity on the one hand (“Our world can’t be his world,” she says, trying to protect their young son) and the point of no return she seems to have reached by play’s end: “Three days is good,” Mona tells her husband, clutching at scant proof that she is off the sauce. But it’s not good enough for Donal, who is packing up to return to “lovely Belfast” — “a lost cause,” in his wife’s harsh assessment, wanting another chance at life.
Of the two performers, Duff has the harder time finding a physical correlative for Mona’s decline; that’s the sort of thing movies do so much better. McDonald, by contrast, animates from the inside out the conflicts obsessing a man who wants to do better both at work and at home in a city where, he says, “nobody gives a damn about us.” He at least admits to a problem and joins AA, whereas the very word “alcoholic” sends Mona into a rage.
Designer Alison Chitty — a regular Gill collaborator — keeps the Donmar stage antiseptically clean, various props lined up against a back wall whose overhead walkway doubles for the couple’s beloved Westminster Bridge. And as the scene-change music hurtles us across a turbulent decade, the performers never once leave the stage, their own hurt amplified exponentially by their shining faces at the start, before happiness was defined by the hip flask.