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'I Am Not Drinking Any Fucking Merlot!' Sideways Becomes a Stage Play

Cloe Kromwell (as Terra), John Colella (as Miles, the Paul Giamatti role in the film), Jonathan Bray (as Jack, the Thomas Haden Church role), and Julia McIlvaine (as Maya, the Virginia Madsen role)

Agnes MagyariCloe Kromwell (as Terra), John Colella (as Miles, the Paul Giamatti role in the film), Jonathan Bray (as Jack, the Thomas Haden Church role), and Julia McIlvaine (as Maya, the Virginia Madsen role)

Rex Pickett's excitement has superseded his exhaustion during the final weeks of rehearsal for his new play Sideways, opening this weekend at Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica. Having adapted the play from his own novel, Pickett is busy making final tweaks to the script and participating in post-show talkbacks, not to mention developing a pilot for HBO. "It's exhilarating, and it's maddening at the same time," Pickett says.

Sideways originated as a semi-autobiographical novel chronicling two friends -- Miles and Jack -- on an existential adventure across the Santa Ynez wine country just before Jack ties the knot. Adapted into an acclaimed film by Alexander Payne in 2004, Sideways gave the valley's tourist industry a palpable boost and increased the profile of Pinot noir across the world. "The Sideways phenomenon, or brand, or whatever you'd want to call it, is huge," Pickett explains. "With the play, it gives fans of Sideways another way to experience it."

Ruskin Group Theatre producer Jason Matthews approached Pickett about adapting Sideways into a play in February 2011. Pickett appreciated the fact that this local company wanted to base the stage adaptation on the original book, not the film. What's more, Matthews promised the author creative control over the adaptation. Such control is typical in theater, but "unheard of in Hollywood," says Pickett, who also wrote a 2011 sequel to Sideways, the novel Vertical.

Jonathan Bray and Cloe Kromwell in Sideways

Agnes MagyariJonathan Bray and Cloe Kromwell in Sideways

Pickett quickly turned over drafts, which were workshopped in cold reads at the Ruskin. "The writing part for me was relatively easy," he says. "It's a very dialogue driven novel, and that really lends itself to the stage."

Since writing a novel can often be a solitary pursuit, Pickett enjoyed the collaborative experience of playwriting for the first time. "It took me back to my indie days," Pickett says. "It wasn't about money, it was all about the work, about the final thing, and that means more to me."

Pickett found a particularly vital co-collaborator in Amelia Mulkey, a fresh 30-year-old director. After casting, Pickett trusted Amelia to take the wheel over the last few weeks.

Although the film adaptation of Sideways has been his greatest financial success, Pickett considers this play to be one of his most creatively rewarding experiences. "Film is a two-dimensional medium. The actors are much larger than life. You have the benefit of music and cutting and montage and pasting," he explains. "In theater you really only have human beings and dialogue."

Realizing Sideways as a play has given the writer a new respect for theater actors, who can "take your words and transport an audience, or alchemize those words in a way that they find things that I didn't hear."

John Colella, Paul Denk, and Jonathan Bray

Agnes MagyariJohn Colella, Paul Denk, and Jonathan Bray

Ruskin Group Theatre's production of Sideways emphasizes the live, social aspect of theatergoing by including a glass of high end Pinot noir with the cost of each ticket, encouraging audience members to mingle before and after the show.

Yet the liveness of the theatrical medium carries a tinge of sadness too. "It's a living thing, and at some point, this particular iteration...There will never be the first version again," Pickett sighs. "To know that it works, at least on some level, is cathartic to me. To see it still live today, there's a measure of redemption in that."

Sideways runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm from May 18 to July 22. Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave. Santa Monica. (310) 397-3244, ruskingrouptheatre.com.

Sarah Taylor Ellis blogs at staylorellis.wordpress.com. For more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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Ruskin Group Theater
miles

3000 Airport
Santa Monica, CA 90405

310-397-3244

www.ruskingrouptheatre.com