Pickett has decanted his novel to the stage with an imperfect grasp of how stage plays work. He shoves observation into dialogue like a stepsister trying to stuff her feet into too-small shoes. How else to explain a scene in which Miles’s mother (Allison Briner-Dardenne) suddenly directly addresses the audience with her gripes about her son? “I just don’t understand why he won’t get his teaching credential,” she soliloquizes.
Still, formal infelicities are easily forgiven. Less defensible: a show which dilates on men’s sexual and romantic needs with female characters only present to enable them; a story of a misanthropic schlub who lands a smart, beautiful lady, just because. On the night I saw it, “Sideways” performed for a mostly female audience, but the surreal fantasies only went one way. Miles describes wines as “young, fresh, nubile,” “pornographically good,” “tighter than a nun’s—.” The rest, like his metaphor for a silky pinot, is unpublishable.
There are halfhearted attempts to endow Terra and Maya with interiority. (This is a problem of the script, not the actresses, who do what they can with the dregs afforded.) But when every woman is either a goddess or a problem, things start to feel ugly — then uglier still when the script asks Burns to remove her top (albeit with her back to the audience) and pour wine over her breasts. Suddenly, I wished I had drunk more — enough to black out, perhaps.
In the days following, I tried to suss out why the movie, which scored Payne an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, worked so much better than the play. It might owe to a different cast or the play’s pointed lack of golf carts. But I would guess it’s because Payne recognized that these blinkered characters are awful, and Pickett and Wackerman can’t or won’t. Or because some stories, unlike fine wines, don’t age well.
The merlot, a friend told me, was delicious.
Sideways: The Experience
Through April 12 at Theater at St. Clement’s, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, sidewaystheexperience.com. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.