Sideways the Play @ The Ruskin Group Theatre

By now Sideways should be a well-known story since it was made popular by its film adaptation and subsequent Academy Award recognition. Now this story transitions seamlessly to the stage, adapted by the original author Rex Pickett, and maintains most of the charm of its film counterpart (I’ve never read the book). There are a few niggling issues with pacing, extraneous scenes and a reactive protagonist, but overall this is an excellent cast that is thoughtfully directed, speaking rich dialogue.

Miles (John Colella) is a struggling writer who is trying to get his very personal book published. He’s also recently divorced, making him somewhat uptight and understandably gun-shy with women. Conversely, Miles’ friend Jack (Jonathan Bray) is the polar opposite. As a Los Angeles actor turned producer, Jack loves to have fun — especially with women — and he’s also about to get married. Since Miles is an avid wine drinker, he and Jack leave the big city and venture into wine country for a multi-day tasting excursion at several different vineyards as a way to celebrate Jack’s final moments as a free man. It’s at a local watering hole that Miles reconnects with an old acquaintance, avid reader and fellow wine enthusiast Maya (Julia McIlvaine), who is recently divorced as well. Jack sees Maya as an opportunity to lift his Miles from his emotional quagmire, while sewing his own wild oats with local sex kitten Terra (Cloe Kromwell). So Jack devises a way to get everyone together. Unfortunately, not everything goes according to plan.

On its face, Sideways is about watching a handful of flawed and/or severely hurt people trying to interact on manufactured common ground, which is, of course, just like real life. On that note, it should be difficult to find an audience that won’t relate. In a very big way, however, Sideways is written specifically for writers. Reading Rex Pickett’s bio in the program reveals just a little bit of writer’s resentment as he confesses his hatred for living in Los Angeles for his career. He also briefly touches on all heartache he’s endured in pursuit of his craft. It’s no surprise then, from the show’s opening soliloquy with Miles emoting over a potential book deal to his piteous explanations about “going deep” for his manuscript, that writers should find a very special connection with this story.

The entire cast is excellent, with standout performances given by John Colella and Jonathan Bray. The two men have a chemistry and quiet comfortableness that is usually only reserved for longstanding relationships. That the two actors believably achieve that relationship is marvelous, and every scene they share is always fascinating to watch. Interestingly, there is a kind of parallelism in the performances here to the film. While Colella doesn’t look anything like Paul Giamatti, Colella does manage the same warbling line delivery. Julia McIlvaine offers a similar staid performance as Virginia Madsen. And Bray will remind of Thomas Haden Church. To be clear, these are not spot-on impersonations, but the performances offer enough similarities to make the comparison. On the other hand, perhaps this is self-delusion and I’m simply remembering the film too well (or not well enough!) or maybe the characters are written so specifically that they shouldn’t be played any other way. Nevertheless, the performances jell fine here, and there’s enough new dialogue and actions to keep the experience fresh.

The Ruskin Group Theatre is a modest space and it seems almost too small to contain the various sets used to tell this story. Yet, set designer CJ Strawn makes excellent use of slide-away furniture and moveable props to convey new settings. Some sets require more help from audiences’ imaginations than others, like when Miles and Jack are driving (they sit in patio chairs and pantomime), but Strawn’s solutions for resolving the limitations of theatre are always creative. As a nice touch, the ensemble doubles as stagehands, setting up the next scene by moving the proper pieces in place while in character. However, long set changes – like the motel room scenes – become even longer as the ensemble players carve out a little scene set to music while dropping off props in the right place. As such, the pace of the show loses a bit of its rhythm.

Ultimately, there is a lesson to be learned in Sideways that may not be appreciated by all audiences. That lesson is embodied by Miles who is a very reactive – rather than proactive – protagonist. He rarely does anything of his own accord. Almost every situation he finds himself in is either manufactured or strongly suggested by his friend Jack, and if/when things go awry, Miles usually reacts in violence or self-destruction. However, this reactive existence and reliance on other people for happiness probably mirrors most people’s real life experiences. And it’s sobering to think of how little control we actually have in our own lives.

Sideways the Play

Ruskin Group Theatre
3000 Airport Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 397-3244

Performances Through July 22
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm
Sundays at 2 pm

$25 ($20 for students, seniors, and guild members)