His original novel, which drew upon many visits to Santa Barbara County’s wine country to play golf and visit tasting rooms when he was an unknown struggling writer, was of course turned into Alexander Payne’s 2004 hit comedy of the same name. That film in turn did more for growers of the grape varietal pinot noir than a thousand raves in the Wine Spectator, Decanter and Saveur magazines.
And Rex Pickett can have dinners on the house at the Hitching Post restaurant, featured so prominently in the book and film, anytime he likes.
Last year he published a sequel, “Vertical” — which may or may not become a new movie — and this May launched a theatrical version of “Sideways” in Santa Monica. He next hopes to take the play on a road tour throughout the U.S.
I caught up with Rex at a Saturday evening performance of “Sideways the Play,” which I think is one of the most enjoyable theater experiences to be had in Southern California at the moment. The play is staged every weekend at the Ruskin Group Theatre Co., a small theater and acting school tucked away in one of the old buildings that line Airport Avenue at the Santa Monica Airport.
An hour before curtain there’s a pinot tasting featuring wines from small, artisanal producers as Rex means to introduce his “Sideways” fan base to labels they may not be familiar with. On this night, we sipped two luscious and spicy 2009 Mendocino pinots from Waits-Mast Family Cellars out of San Francisco.
Rex was in a buoyant mood as the play has sold out every night so far and the run has been extended through late August. He explained that his plan is to take the show up north. He is eyeing a 700-acre vineyard property in Sonoma where he can put up a Cirque du Soleil-style tent with flooring and tiered individual seating. If the show can’t be up and running by November, the company would probably hold off until March to avoid the dead winter months.
He is also contemplating a third “Sideways” novel. He doesn’t want to set another book on the Pacific coast, however. Even Miles at the end of “Vertical” was hankering to go to Spain. He admits he has been approached by wine districts from several countries, including one in South America, in hopes that he might set the new book — is there such a thing as a triquel? — in their wine regions.
“In essence they would fund my research, but I would have total control over the content and they don’t own the publishing rights,” Rex said. “If I decide not to do it after spending time there I can opt out of the deal. That would include an amount to go there, a writer-in-residence at a major university, accommodations and all travel.”
Clearly, Rex sees “Sideways” as a brand whose life has only just begun.
Rex and I became friends well after I reviewed “Sideways” at its world premiere in the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival. My wife and I met him at a wine event in Paso Robles, still in California’s Central Coast but better known for its Rhone Valley varietals than pinots.
Rex has directed two low-budget indie films as well as writing the screenplay for “My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York,” directed by his ex-wife Barbara Schock, which won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short. But this play is his introduction to the world of theater.
He had the great good fortune to hire a young woman, Amelia Mulkey, to direct the play. She does a terrific job. The 52-seat theater has an extremely tight space yet Mulkey sees to it that the play flows smoothly throughout the Santa Ynez Valley’s various tasting rooms, bars, motels and restaurants all the way up to Paso Robles.
With the audience seated in an L and a raised platform at the far end, the cramped stage uses a host of props, one ubiquitous bar counter, two Murphy beds, winery signposts and more wine bottles and glasses than you can count to indicate the story’s many locales. The well coordinated set changes and repositioning of props by the ensemble cast, who also plays many roles, are nearly as amusing as the play itself.
One cast member and former bartender, Hamilton Matthews, has done an ingenious job of watering down fruit juices and teas and adding coloring to simulate the various white, red and rosé wines being poured during the show.
Believe me, when a rare bottle of 1990 La Tâche from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was opened, I had to restrain myself from bolting from my front-row seat and asking for a pour. The wine looks that realistic.
Remember now, “Sideways the Play” is based on Rex Pickett’s novel and not on the Alexander Payne-Jim Taylor screenplay so expect a much different second act than the movie’s. Not to mention gun shots in that second act.
John Colella plays the sad-sack unpublished novelist Miles and Jonathan Bray his feckless pal Jack on a wine-country excursion in the week leading up to Jack’s wedding in Paso. Here again there are differences between Pickett’s characters and the movie’s.
Without losing any of the humor, Colella’s Miles is an even more frustrated character, fatalistic about his unlucky choice of a career, gun shy when it comes to women after a wrenching divorce and taking delight in only one thing in life — drinking high-end pinots.
His passive pursuit of Julia McIlvaine’s lovely Maya, the Hitching Post waitress, edges away from comedy into drama as neither character is entirely convinced that the idea is a good one. McIlvaine’s Maya is more touching and less self-confident. I think Pickett and McIlvaine may have even improved this character from the novel.
Bray’s Jack is less a serial womanizer than a thoughtless guy who genuinely falls for Cloe Kromwell’s tasting room hottie Terra. He then is clueless how to make right the extreme wrong he has caused by making so many promises to her he cannot keep. And Kromwell imbues the role with such vivacity that her betrayal feels all the more poignant.
The play, as did the original novel, just goes to a somewhat darker place than the movie.
Which is not to say “Sideways the Play” isn’t a jolly great time. Patrons are encouraged to take plastic cups of their pinot of choice into the theater and the tasting continues at intermission. “All theaters should do this,” I overheard one gentleman say as we headed back inside for the second act.
I think Rex is on to something very smart here. The play version of “Sideways” should make a great touring show. And if Rex decides to travel to Latin America to research a third novel, he might want to investigate a Spanish version of “Sideways the Play,” one set in the emerging wine regions down there. Of course, the featured wine may then have to change from pinot to malbec.