Patrick Breen as Miles and Nadia Bowers as Maya in La Jolla Playhouse's… (Kevin Berne )
LA JOLLA -- The theater can do just about anything in my book, as long as it doesn't take place in a car. Driving always looks so ludicrous onstage, never more so than in the recent Pasadena Playhouse dud, "Sleepless in Seattle," in which a brief scene behind the wheel exhumed for me the buried memory of a cardboard cutout sedan shuffling across the stage of a school assembly.
Such an aesthetically traumatic incident can send a theater critic back into therapy for an entire season.
For some odd reason, La Jolla Playhouse keeps taking up the vehicular challenge, first with the road trip musical "Little Miss Sunshine," then with the car dealership show "Hands on a Hardbody" and now with the sleek yet superfluous stage adaptation of "Sideways," Rex Pickett's novel that was made into a vintage Alexander Payne film.
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Hello, this is California. Do we really need to go to the theater to spend more time trapped inside an automobile?
"Sideways," of course, is a tale of two aging buddies set against the picturesque backdrop of Santa Ynez Valley wine country. A divorced writer who's at a standstill in his love life and career and a womanizing actor who's about to finally tie the knot motor from one vineyard tasting room to another in a last hurrah as bachelor pals.
They quaff and dine and quaff some more, yammering all the while about wine and women. At some point they must stop for gas, but fortunately Pickett leaves the fueling out of his play.
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Former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff is too experienced a director to keep his leads, Patrick Breen and Sean Allan Krill, stuck in the front seat for long periods of time. His production, as slick as it is spare, employs a sort of compact golf cart that allows the actors to be fully present in the driving scenes. But this vehicle is used sparingly so that the Pinots can be sipped and the Merlots derided out in the open.
A bigger issue for the production turns out to be the memory of Payne's superb film starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. It's hard not to conclude that the material just works better on screen as a sort of delayed coming-of-age travelogue.
The first 15 minutes of the La Jolla Playhouse production were particularly rocky. I found it difficult to adjust to the way the actors were theatricalizing the characters. Breen telegraphs Miles' identity as a floundering writer, italicizing his verbal refinements and emphasizing his depressive state of mind with every desperate gulp of wine. Krill turns Jack into a crinkly surfer dude long past his expiration date.
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Instead of inhabiting these characters, the actors appear to be introducing them to an audience incapable of subtlety. The psychology might as well have been illuminated in neon.
But once the boys (and "boys" is the apt term here) pay a brief visit to Miles' dotty mother (Cynthia Mace cutting loose like a prosperous Mrs. Roper from "Three's Company"), I buckled in for the ride and began to get caught up in the adventure.
It helps that the two "chicks" capturing Miles' and Jack's attention are played by Nadia Bowers and Zoë Chao. They lend texture and dignity to these single women and by doing so they elicit something a little less cartoonish from Breen and Krill.
Chao, who plays Terra, has the tougher challenge, as she has to spend a good deal of time moaning at the top of her lungs while getting kinky with two-timing Jack. Bowers has just the right vulnerability and maturity for Maya, who recognizes in Miles a fellow bookish soul still smarting from a botched marriage.
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The emotional through line of the story is clear and simple. Miles is drowning himself in wine because of his disappointment with himself as a husband, as a son and as a writer. He's waiting for success to save him — a publishing deal for his novel has him on tenterhooks for the entire trip — but he's having trouble understanding that there is no get-out-of-jail card for adulthood.
Even love requires him to show up, take responsibility for himself and own up to his failures. That's a tall order for a guy still filching rent money from his mother, but it sure helps when someone as bright, pretty and understanding as Maya is encouraging him to take a chance again on himself.
"Sideways" is moving if you can laugh off Jack's frat boy antics. His banter seems to burst out of a 1970s singles bar time capsule. When he first spots Maya, not knowing that Miles has already met her and secretly fancies her, he says what any West Coast philanderer straight out of central casting would say: "Whoa, whoa, whoa, 0-800, 0-800. Hand on the rudder. Full throttle."
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