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Staging 'Sideways'

Author Rex Pickett riffs on the premiere of his play, and Pinot

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Rex Pickett is tall, funny, brutally honest and unfailingly energetic—even when exhausted and hungry. In conversation, he is passionate and personal, spontaneous and astonishingly self-critical. He speaks in a stream of short to medium-length proclamations, suggestions and confessions, strung all together like one long sentence that, on occasion, will go on for several uninterrupted minutes.

Pickett is not humble, exactly. He is on record as saying that Pinot Noir might not be so popular today were it not for him, but he has a habit of being more or less right about such statements. He really is responsible for the popularity of Pinot, though he would add that Pinot itself has something to do with that. For the record, he's also responsible for a decline in popularity of Merlot, though he adds that Merlot might itself have something to do with that, too.

Pickett is, of course, the author of the novel Sideways, the inspiration for the Oscar-winning 2004 film by Alexander Payne that stars Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. The film, a road-movie through the wine country of Santa Ynez north of Santa Barbara, follows Miles, a sad-sack writer with a passion for Pinot Noir, and his best-friend, Jack, an aging Hollywood actor with a touch of sex addiction and a hankering to sow some final wild oats before getting married. The film famously allowed Miles to insult Merlot drinkers so hilariously that vast hordes of people stopped drinking the stuff.

After following up Sideways with two sequels, Pickett has spent the last several years adapting the original novel into a stage play. After test runs of earlier drafts in Santa Monica, San Diego and London, the completed version is about to receive its world premiere in Santa Rosa, courtesy of Left Edge Theatre and director Argo Thompson, with a mighty assist from actor Ron Severdia, who not only plays Miles in the show, but also had a hand in convincing Left Edge to take a crack at reinventing the play.

Last month, at the start of rehearsals, Pickett visited the cast and crew for several days, making final suggestions and alterations. During that time, he sat down with me for a nearly two-hour conversation.

Here are some of the juiciest moments.

THE BOHEMIAN: The Left Edge Theatre production of 'Sideways' is being billed as a world premiere, but there have been one or two previous stagings of the play, or some version of the play. I assume this is the latest incarnation of a show that has basically been in various stages of early development until now?

REX PICKETT: OK, here's the story. It's kind of crazy, because theater is kind of crazy. First of all, yes. This is the world premiere. An earlier version of Sideways was done at the Ruskin Group Theater in Santa Monica in 2012, in a tiny 50-seat theater, and then another incarnation was done at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2013— a much bigger production.

And how'd those productions go?

They went great, but I learned a lot. Look, I've written novels, but this is my first play, right? And early on, it was a very difficult play. Really funny, but hard to stage. My script had 23 different scenes, with complete set changes between every one. The director of the San Diego version, Des McAnuff, who directed Jersey Boys, said that Sideways was the most difficult nonmusical he'd directed in 38 years.

You sound kind proud of that.

Well, yes and no. I was trying to make the play feel like the movie, because I know how much people love the movie. It's a road movie, so I wanted the play to have that same sense of forward momentum and drive. A lot of quick scenes, one after the other, does have a sense of propulsion.

Anyway, after La Jolla, I was sort of waiting for the show to maybe go to Broadway. So I'm sitting there waiting and waiting. And Broadway didn't happen. So I took the play to London last summer, and we had a run of it there at the St. James Theatre.

This was still the 23-scene version?

Yes. Reviews were good but mixed, and the scene changes were part of the problem. At La Jolla Playhouse, they used rear-screen projection, hot tubs coming up out of the floor, cars driving across the stage. That's how the scene changes were handled. In London there was a kind of a turntable on the stage, but it's an old theater, and it didn't always work.

That was a little over a year ago. How did you end up deciding to bring the play to Northern California, and to Left Edge Theatre, another 'small black box'–type place?

Well, Ron Severdia, who works with Left Edge Theatre, had been tracking the play for several years, writing me all these emails asking when the script of Sideways would be available. And I kept writing Ron back, saying, "It's tied up. It's still tied up." But he kept at it, and I have to say, his determination and the ideas that came with the proposal, were very appealing.

All this time, I have been focused on getting the play into bigger and bigger theaters, but Ron's thought was, this play should be in a lot of theaters all over the place, that it should be published in a version that is accessible—and not so technically challenging—for theaters large or small to produce. He told me that he and Argo Thompson, the [Left Edge Theatre] director, had an idea to take those 23 scenes and simplify the transitions, without losing a line of dialogue.

Let me be clear. I loved the La Jolla production, with all the fancy stagecraft a big, well-funded theater can do. And the London production, too. They were great. But what I learned from those versions is that the story of Sideways is really about connection, it's about conversation and dialogue. And that's what Ron and Argo convinced me of—that to really work, this story should be stripped-down to what makes it great. And that's the relationship between Miles and Jack.

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