At one point toward the end of Sideways, the new play by Rex Pickett now at the La Jolla Playhouse, the aspiring writer Miles is whapped more or less simultaneously by news of his beloved ex-wife’s remarriage, his mother’s complaint that she’s missing cash since his last visit, a federal tax lien, an irate landlord and a bad dental report.
And those are just the people who have his cell phone number.
Miles, who hasn’t been laid in two years and whose novel is out for the 32nd and possibly final submission by his agent, is rapidly approaching his nadir. That’s partly why his best bud Jack, the sometime actor-director from Hollywood, wants him along for a final bachelor tour of the wine country before Jack marries a sleek, blonde trust fund
What transpires is another raunchy road trip for a slacker and a nerd, except this one is touched with enchantment. Much of it comes alive: characters, relationships, scenery and incident, all steeped in the rich mysteries of wine, especially the hallowed pinot noir.
Pickett, a UCSD grad with film credits as a writer and a director, wrote the novel Sideways but had nothing directly to do with the excellent 2004 of the same name. Though there are similarities galore, this play goes its own proud way, thank you very much, and trades sentimentality for truth in charming and convincing fashion.
Miles is a mess of self-doubts and self-pity while Jack’s jolly sex obsessions slip past the cute and into the creepy. But both of them really do care about each other and, gradually, so does the audience, despite the play’s spiraling tangle of sybaritic deception and berserk hedonism. The two winsome wine-country women who climb aboard are the elegant Maya, who sought revenge on a boorish ex by ravishing his expensive wine cellar only to find herself enthralled by the vine, and the peppy Terra, who flings herself at life. Prize champagne and vintage burgundy.
We all know that director Des McAnuff can deliver the big stuff like rivers and pinball wizards and saviors but here he pulls in the external spectacle and pinpoints the emotional journeys of people not so exceptional but somehow worth the attention.
McAnuff has the ability to help actors build entire characters with a few sketchy strokes. It’s not just “guy who scratches his nose” in the cast list. It’s somebody with a name, a look, a style, a gesture that suggest a substantial individual we just haven’t the time to investigate. The supporting cast of eight cover 45 different roles, all appropriate and some of which – an agent’s prissy assistant, some poisonously respectable yuppies, an improbably raucous pig hunter – leave behind a perceptible spoor.
The two guys really do need kicking in the butt sometimes. Miles is a whiner and a snob and you wonder how he’ll handle success but Patrick Breen makes him not just tolerable but worth rooting for. Jack is written with such craft – he’s a shameless cad and several kinds of phony but he does have a talent for seeing both sides of knotty questions – that Sean Allen Krill has more room for fun, which he scatters like confetti.
Zoe Chao is a live wire of maximum verve as Terra and Nadia Bowers is a dream walking as Maya, a tawny, almost regal presence who can bestow blessings merely by showing up. They both look great in bikinis but never lose their distinct individualism. (The guys also look trim in that hot-tub scene, somehow more of a surprise, considering their lifestyles.)
Robert Krill’s set is another triumph of suggestive minimalism and selected realism, enhanced immensely by the projections of Sean Nieuwenhuis, which give the long vistas of California hills the panache of the best wine labels. Michael Walton’s lighting, Paul Tazewell’s costumes and Michael Roth’s easy-going music all augment the glow of the show.
This lost week in the Santa Ynez Valley is a chugalug lurch through a culture of sipping, but the world doesn’t end. And not everybody is the wiser, I suspect, except maybe the audience, which has gained a glow beyond what they expected. That’s certainly the case with me.