A really good story ought to have multiple lives. There’s no reason why Sideways, for example, having been an interesting novel and a great film, shouldn’t become a successful stage play. And in fact, that’s exactly what has happened as I witnessed last week at La Jolla Playhouse, where Rex Pickett’s stage adaptation of his book, directed by Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys), is filling every available seat in this extended run. This Sideways is both an invigorating night in the theater and a great opportunity to appreciate the craft of adaptation, stage division.
Patrick Breen is witty and incisive as Miles, the frustrated writer/pinot-phile. Steering clear of Paul Giamatti’s memorable interpretation, Breen finds something new, but in the process his Miles loses some passion. As Jack, the best friend who is getting married and is out for a last fling, Sean Allan Krill has a ball, shifting easily among his character’s various personae — cajoling pal, dissimulating fiancé, and actor on the make. Nadia Bowers delivers a feisty, energetic performance as Maya, the recent divorcée with whom Miles shares his love of the grape, and Zoe Chao sizzles as Terra, the tasting-room pour girl who hooks up with Jack. The rest of the cast — there are eight more players in this show — play multiple parts, ranging from such familiar supporting roles as Phyllis (Cynthia Mace), Miles’s mom, to Brad (Tom Patterson), a hard-drinking Buellton local who hunts wild boar in the vineyards.
It must have been cathartic for the novelist, who was not involved in the screenplay adaptation, to restore some of the scenes from the novel that weren’t used in the film. This results in a very different second act, in which the big scene involving a third woman and a left-behind wallet gets scratched in favor of a dark and harrowing late-night trip to the vineyards with Brad the huntsman. The substitution makes sense, as the show benefits from the contrasting tone of the sequence, but it also unplugs the play from the story’s primary source of narrative drive, which is erotic.
The best scenes all display the characters in seduction mode: When Jack meets Terra at the Foxen tasting room, the two turn the simple act of pouring wine into a funny, sexy routine that taps into the core of Sideways’s appeal. When they consummate this flirtation later on, loudly and onstage, their gymnastics distract from some classic speeches of Maya and Miles, but the counterpoint works dramatically, and soon enough all four of the characters are in the hot tub. With Santa Barbara wines waiting in the lobby, and two lovely women in bikinis cavorting on the stage, what’s not to like about this grown-up version of spring break?
Although the stage version of Sideways plays up the redemptive aspect of Miles’s journey, it does so with an awareness of the story’s darker side. The lights-out terror of the boar hunt brings the two men face-to-face with the consequences of alcoholism and even gets Miles to the point of saying the dreaded word, something his character never does in the film. When Jack’s wedding turns into a party, and even Maya shows up, the ultimate sense is that these are flawed people who still have a chance at happiness and that, despite a number of wrong moves and bad decisions, their time tangled up in the vines of Santa Ynez has been worth it.