Sideways the Play

a kate west review
a world premiere event
by Rex Pickett
directed by Amelia Mulkey
at Ruskin Group Theatre
3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405 
Contact 310-397-3244 or
Running May 18 - July 22, 2012 - EXTENDED!!!

Rex Pickett's life used to be a mess. Being a writer, the only way he could cope with it all was to scrawl all his deep darks onto paper. You can read all it about in his blog here. But for straight novelization, you'll have to turn to his acclaimed book "Sideways", the wine country's game changer and pinot noir champion (sorry, merlot), particularly in the Santa Ynez Valley. If you haven't read it or seen the delightful award-winning Alexander Payne film, (and if even your parents have seen it, why the heck haven't you yet?) it's about two old friends, Miles and Jack, who go on a wine tasting road adventure for one last hurrah before Jack gets hitched (and Miles can try to forget his recent divorce and publishing woes). How much trouble could they possibly get into? Prepared for a more sophisticated palate than the usual "Hangover" crowd might expect, with a good helping of artistic ennui thrown in, "Sideways" leads us down some dark (but profoundly delicious) paths. For even more in vino veritas insight you can jump on the grape bandwagon, so to speak, and take the actual "Sideways" wine tour in an "Eat, Pray, Love" follower kind of way (more on that phenomenon elsewhere in this blog), or you can check out the newly published sequel "Vertical". If you choose the latter, you may notice a marked difference in the writers voice. The first book was wholly from the point of view of Miles, with a marketable blend of humor and grief, while the second book shows more of that real writer anguish behind the iconic character. Both are semi-autographical, but the second reads much more introspectively.

But this is a theater review. The good news is that "Sideways" turned out to be rather conducive for the type of monologuing so often used on stage. And Pickett found just the place to collaborate with at the Ruskin Group Theatre. And in case you weren't aware, this company exists right across from Santa Monica Airport (yes, Santa Monica does have its own airport - who knew?) You get free parking there and if you are seeing the world premiere production of "Sideways", free wine poured from high-end wineries (list below). Sharp Cellars showed a particularly fun little pinot during a Sunday matinee.

Now about the production itself. Amelia Mulkey directs her professionally adept actors with a light hand, choreographing transitions nicely (the scene changes are very fun too). The actors are likeable, especially the quiet romantic interest, Maya (Julia McIlvaine), who seduces Miles with her wine expertise. Crowd favorite Jack is boisterously played by Jonathan Bray and very much a match for Thomas Haden Church in the film version (if we're making comparisons). Cloe Kromwell lends some hot Italian flavor to Terra, the temptress who enables Jack to fully embrace his bad boy. As for our protagonist Miles, John Colella lends a properly pretentious voice to the famous wine connoisseur. So do people really speak that condescendingly in daily conversation? Yes, writers (and wine drinkers) do apparently, and while his character is constantly made fun of for it throughout the piece, you might also feel the urge to strangle him at times. 

Interspersed with one-sided phone calls to the "real world", the Miles and Jack journey grants us some temporary fantasy, which is easy to believe in after a few drinks, but nausea-inducing upon reflection the next morning. Still, the characters are flawed but believable, and earn their redemptions. Road trips are always fun, even without an actual car, and the play captures the spirit of that wanderlust nicely. A competent crew of secondary characters fills in the action well and Set Designer CJ Strawn gives us a cozy all-purpose setting, which the actors use fully. Director Mulkey creates a charming atmosphere, the way sunny alcohol-fueled vacations should be. Oh, included in the price of admission is a boar hunting trip from the novel (not the movie) with live-fake gunshots, just to warn you. Fun scene though. Kerouac worthy, in fact.

If you've read the original novel and seen the movie, you will see that both the film and stage version stick close to the plot and both are true to the heart of the story, each with a slightly different vision and some scene changes, here and there. Payne added his own indie angst to the project for the movie, while on stage Pickett happily unleashes his full writer angst with subtle changes to the dialogue. Some of that "Vertical" self-consciousness slips through in places, as in the line where Maya praises Miles for being brave enough to write what he writes. You can't really blame Pickett for taking some power back from Hollywood (try collaborating with a major studio sometime and see how creatively unfulfilling it can be) but every once in a while you get that little reminder of the voice behind it all. Granted, a thrillingly intellectual voice.

Plus you still get some of the more famous scenes (spit bucket ring any bells?) so every taste bud will be satisfied. Who hasn't felt as lost as Miles at times, helpless to stop the inevitable self-destruction that seems to consume us more and more in this crazy modern world. All we have to hang on to is each other sometimes. Jack's wild side may be a misdirected complement to the introverted Miles, yet while they are initially bad influences on each other, sticking together through the insanity lands them safely (more or less) where they are supposed to be. Eventually. And really, that's all you can ask of a friend.

Here's the book: Sideways: A Novel 

Here's the new book: Vertical (The Deluxe Edition): The Sequel to Sideways 

Here's the wine:  

The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition

Here's the movie: Sideways (Widescreen Edition)

Classic road tripping: On the Road (Penguin Classics) 

Photo by Agnes Magyari: 

Cloe Kromwell (as Terra), John Colella (as Miles), Jonathan Bray (as Jack), and Julia McIlvaine (as Maya)

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