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A road trip goes Sideways at La Jolla Playhouse

Breen (left) swallows so many fluids in the two-and-a-half hour show, you fear for his health.
Breen (left) swallows so many fluids in the two-and-a-half hour show, you fear for his health.

In the funniest scene of Sideways, currently at the La Jolla Playhouse, Miles and Jack get skunk-drunk and go on a boar hunt with Brad. He’s the official slayer of things porcine for the Santa Inez Valley, he boasts, so rich snoots can sip fine wines. Lit only by a car’s headlights, Miles and Jack hear shots — loud ones — apparently aimed at them. They freak. One shouts, “Do we look like wild pigs?”

If Jack did the shouting, then, well, yeah.

Jack directs TV, calls women “chicks,” and thinks lovemaking should resemble a match on WWE Friday Night Smackdown. Jack’s attitude has a Filnerian feel: shoot first, dodge reporters later.

Jack’s getting married in a week and wants one last fling. He’ll also scheme for gloom-shrouded Miles’s first fling in quite some time.

Jack has a hair-trigger. Miles has no firing pin. Divorced two years ago, depressed ever since, maybe even before, Miles’s responsibilities encircle him: debt, IRS audit, acres of self-doubt. He has one true love: wine. He has kept a bottle of La Tâche ’82, said to be a religious experience (though a connoisseur friend says “la touche” could be a parody and has no relation to any existing wine). Miles will open the red burgundy only when the time is right but fears it won’t measure up to expectations.

On their premarital “road trip,” Jack and Miles vow to go “sideways” — get blotto, go loopy — though the term also defines their lives thus far, since neither has budged an inch forward since adolescence. So they F-bomb their way up the coast — after, that is, Miles steals rent money from his mother in Carpenteria.

In an odd way, along with resembling the Odd Couple, Jack and Miles recall hyper-sexed Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) and morose Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) in On the Road. The difference, which that recent, evil movie failed to grasp: Jack and Neal want to transcend fleshly urges (okay, most of them) and bloom spiritually. Jack and Miles, by contrast, merely descend. They’re wedded to avoidance behavior, abetted by gallons of vino fino, even, at one point, from a spit bucket.

Rex Pickett wrote the original novel but not the Academy Award–winning Best Adapted Screenplay. That was Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Pickett’s stage version reads, in some ways, like his response to the movie. It deviates in several places — in the movie, Jack dallies twice, with Stephanie and later Cammi, whose husband catches them in flagrante; Miles’s prized wine is a ’61 Chateau Cheval Blanc. Pickett has three divorcées and a groom in waiting. The change lets him raise questions about love, commitment, and married life. He adds a titch more depth and crassness. But the play unfolds as if it wants to be a movie, or movie-like. And it assumes we already know Miles and Jack.

The first scenes are sketchy and function, it seems, to pick up stragglers unfamiliar with the movie. But the play doesn’t have to go single file. It needs condensing. And since it doesn’t start until they reach the wine country, everything prior (even stealing from the mother) could be subsumed in backstory.

On the plus side, the dialogue snaps and crackles with several keeper one-liners, especially about dating actresses and Jack’s personal “higher power.” And master-director Des McAnuff finds opportunities to inject potential substance into what is essentially boys-will-be-boys hijinks.

Robert Brill designed a super-realistic set for the playhouse’s His Girl Friday. For Sideways he offers a minimalist look, with sliding, white-ash-colored panels and units that speed on and off. Scenes change so swiftly it’s like driving up 101, north of Goleta, and watching California oaks zip by.

Sean Nieuwenhuis’s videos — rows of green vines and rolling, straw-colored hills —panorama the Santa Inez Valley. Paul Tazewell’s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s wigs people the stage with affluence and down-homey togs. Michael Roth’s background music enhances scenes, though often, when it first comes on, sounds like a song-cue.

Patrick Breen has a familiar face, in part for his role as the watery-eyed alien who died that sad death in Galaxy Quest — “by Grabthar’s hammer.” Breen expresses Miles’s intelligence and neuroses effectively. And he swallows so many fluids in the two-and-a-half hour show, you fear for his health.

Breen could tone Miles down, however. As could the entire cast, who perform as if jacked on 5-Hour Energy shooters.

Nadia Bowers and Zoë Chao make Maya and Terra such alert and grounded women, you wonder what they see in the shallow city dudes. Vi Flaten as Jack’s fiancée Babs and Allison Sprat Pearce as Miles’s ex do what they can with dysfunctional cyphers: we learn nothing about them, and they tell us little about Jack and Miles.

Sean Allan Krill does expert work as Jack: layers of mania. But the character, like the play, is a matter of taste. Will his next step (and Miles’s, for that matter) be yet another lateral slide from long overdue adulthood? ■

Sideways, by Rex Pickett

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD

Directed by Des McAnuff, cast: Patrick Breen, Jeff Marlow, Vi Flaten, Jorge Rodriguez, Sean Allan Krill, Cynthia Mace, Mike Sears, Nadia Bowers, Jasmine St. Clair, Zoë Chao, Allison Spratt Pearce, Tom Patterson; scenic design, Robert Brill; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Michael Walton; sound, Cricket S. Myers

Playing through August 25; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010

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Breen (left) swallows so many fluids in the two-and-a-half hour show, you fear for his health.
Breen (left) swallows so many fluids in the two-and-a-half hour show, you fear for his health.

In the funniest scene of Sideways, currently at the La Jolla Playhouse, Miles and Jack get skunk-drunk and go on a boar hunt with Brad. He’s the official slayer of things porcine for the Santa Inez Valley, he boasts, so rich snoots can sip fine wines. Lit only by a car’s headlights, Miles and Jack hear shots — loud ones — apparently aimed at them. They freak. One shouts, “Do we look like wild pigs?”

If Jack did the shouting, then, well, yeah.

Jack directs TV, calls women “chicks,” and thinks lovemaking should resemble a match on WWE Friday Night Smackdown. Jack’s attitude has a Filnerian feel: shoot first, dodge reporters later.

Jack’s getting married in a week and wants one last fling. He’ll also scheme for gloom-shrouded Miles’s first fling in quite some time.

Jack has a hair-trigger. Miles has no firing pin. Divorced two years ago, depressed ever since, maybe even before, Miles’s responsibilities encircle him: debt, IRS audit, acres of self-doubt. He has one true love: wine. He has kept a bottle of La Tâche ’82, said to be a religious experience (though a connoisseur friend says “la touche” could be a parody and has no relation to any existing wine). Miles will open the red burgundy only when the time is right but fears it won’t measure up to expectations.

On their premarital “road trip,” Jack and Miles vow to go “sideways” — get blotto, go loopy — though the term also defines their lives thus far, since neither has budged an inch forward since adolescence. So they F-bomb their way up the coast — after, that is, Miles steals rent money from his mother in Carpenteria.

In an odd way, along with resembling the Odd Couple, Jack and Miles recall hyper-sexed Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) and morose Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) in On the Road. The difference, which that recent, evil movie failed to grasp: Jack and Neal want to transcend fleshly urges (okay, most of them) and bloom spiritually. Jack and Miles, by contrast, merely descend. They’re wedded to avoidance behavior, abetted by gallons of vino fino, even, at one point, from a spit bucket.

Rex Pickett wrote the original novel but not the Academy Award–winning Best Adapted Screenplay. That was Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Pickett’s stage version reads, in some ways, like his response to the movie. It deviates in several places — in the movie, Jack dallies twice, with Stephanie and later Cammi, whose husband catches them in flagrante; Miles’s prized wine is a ’61 Chateau Cheval Blanc. Pickett has three divorcées and a groom in waiting. The change lets him raise questions about love, commitment, and married life. He adds a titch more depth and crassness. But the play unfolds as if it wants to be a movie, or movie-like. And it assumes we already know Miles and Jack.

The first scenes are sketchy and function, it seems, to pick up stragglers unfamiliar with the movie. But the play doesn’t have to go single file. It needs condensing. And since it doesn’t start until they reach the wine country, everything prior (even stealing from the mother) could be subsumed in backstory.

On the plus side, the dialogue snaps and crackles with several keeper one-liners, especially about dating actresses and Jack’s personal “higher power.” And master-director Des McAnuff finds opportunities to inject potential substance into what is essentially boys-will-be-boys hijinks.

Robert Brill designed a super-realistic set for the playhouse’s His Girl Friday. For Sideways he offers a minimalist look, with sliding, white-ash-colored panels and units that speed on and off. Scenes change so swiftly it’s like driving up 101, north of Goleta, and watching California oaks zip by.

Sean Nieuwenhuis’s videos — rows of green vines and rolling, straw-colored hills —panorama the Santa Inez Valley. Paul Tazewell’s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s wigs people the stage with affluence and down-homey togs. Michael Roth’s background music enhances scenes, though often, when it first comes on, sounds like a song-cue.

Patrick Breen has a familiar face, in part for his role as the watery-eyed alien who died that sad death in Galaxy Quest — “by Grabthar’s hammer.” Breen expresses Miles’s intelligence and neuroses effectively. And he swallows so many fluids in the two-and-a-half hour show, you fear for his health.

Breen could tone Miles down, however. As could the entire cast, who perform as if jacked on 5-Hour Energy shooters.

Nadia Bowers and Zoë Chao make Maya and Terra such alert and grounded women, you wonder what they see in the shallow city dudes. Vi Flaten as Jack’s fiancée Babs and Allison Sprat Pearce as Miles’s ex do what they can with dysfunctional cyphers: we learn nothing about them, and they tell us little about Jack and Miles.

Sean Allan Krill does expert work as Jack: layers of mania. But the character, like the play, is a matter of taste. Will his next step (and Miles’s, for that matter) be yet another lateral slide from long overdue adulthood? ■

Sideways, by Rex Pickett

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD

Directed by Des McAnuff, cast: Patrick Breen, Jeff Marlow, Vi Flaten, Jorge Rodriguez, Sean Allan Krill, Cynthia Mace, Mike Sears, Nadia Bowers, Jasmine St. Clair, Zoë Chao, Allison Spratt Pearce, Tom Patterson; scenic design, Robert Brill; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Michael Walton; sound, Cricket S. Myers

Playing through August 25; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010

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