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  • Writer's pictureJoy Murphy

SIDEWAYS and the Theatrical Genius of Alvis Hermanis

Twelve years ago I premiered/workshopped my Sideways play (a theatrical adaptation of my novel written by me) at the tiny 50-seat Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, CA. Scheduled to run 15 performances, it ran nearly 100. A certified, Equity-waiver hit, it bolted straight to the La Jolla Playhouse, a 400-seat theater, with Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) directing. It ran over 50 performances and broke all records for a non-musical at that theater. Due to a dispute with the director, the rights to my play were held up for three, long years. When they finally reverted back to me it was staged in London at the St. James Theatre. The first two productions were wildly successful, the London one not so. I never felt, in all of the productions that the director got my text right. There was something missing, but since I hadn't seen the ne plus ultra version of my play, being a neophyte to theater I didn't know what it was. Until now.

In Feb. of 2023 I received an email from my licensor that the artistic director, Alvis Hermanis, of the New Riga Theatre in Riga, Latvia was interested in staging my play. He wanted to read it. My play was sent to him. Two months elapsed before the New Riga Theatre wrote to say that Alvis Hermanis, was interested in licensing Sideways and inquiring about the terms. My permission had to be obtained, and I granted it immediately. Not knowing Latvian, what did I care? I would get a royalty and that was that. My play had already been on a successful national tour of Spain for two years. A silly version, compressed to a 90-min. one-act, but still ... two years.

Alvis wrote me an email thanking me for granting him the rights to stage my play at the smaller (250 seats) of New Riga's two theaters. He admitted to me that originally he only knew the movie, that he didn't know the movie was based on a novel, and that a play version written by me had emerged out of the book and had been staged successfully in the States. We scheduled a Zoom. Alvis Hermanis, 58, is a tall, serious man with a shaved head. He admitted to me that he had already written the adaptation, drawing mostly on my play, but also on my novel with bits pulled here and there from the movie. He asked me to trust him because in Latvia some things don't translate: names, jokes, etc. He assured me, though, his adaptation was very faithful to my source material. I did some research on Alvis. I learned that he had begun as an actor, then been a production designer, but for the past 26 years had been the artistic director of the state-supported New Riga Theatre. He had staged many plays, two of them having played in repertory for over a decade. He had also directed five operas at La Scala and four at the Berlin Oper Haus.

Our Zoom and subsequent email resulted in a lively exchange that would end up in the playbill for the play. Whatever reservations I had about Alvis's adaptation of my play were assuaged by the fact I don't speak Latvian and probably wouldn't see the play and, as with Spain, it wouldn't matter. Nevertheless, I followed the play's progress on their website. I saw pictures of cast members and was pleasantly surprised. When I was vouchsafed an English transcript of Alvis's adaptation I devoured it eagerly. The translation was butchered by Google Translate and it was, to put it mildly, risible to read the English version. However, I was able to see the structure of the play, the design. And, as Alvis promised, he had remained, for the most part, faithful to my original play text.

Sideways, as written, is a difficult play to stage. After reading the workshop version, Des McAnuff said to me: "You've done something almost unprecedented. You've written a play that has 23 scene and setting changes and your main character is at the top and bottom of every scene. How did you do it?" I told him to come up to Ruskin and see for himself. He roared up in his Porsche Panamera and took in the workshop, Equity-waiver version in Ruskin's 50-seat house. The director of the Ruskin Group Theatre version was a 31-year-old woman who had only directed one play before. In order to keep the play moving she employed commedia dell'arte transitions. Some were clever. Some were silly. Some were practical. It was 20 minutes of another play that I hadn't written. But it kept the play moving because plays, I learned, can never stop for more than a few seconds. At the $20 million Potiker Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse where McAnuff staged it, he had an almost unlimited budget and all the sophisticated technology in the world not afforded Amelia. Working with a Tony Award-winning production designer they were able to change the set from a tasting room to a hotel room to a car to a beach in a matter of seconds. In McAnuff's words: "It's the hardest nonmusical I've ever directed." It put a burden on the actors. Still, the audiences roared with laughter eight performances a week, was extended twice, and to this day is one of the most successful nonmusicals in La Jolla Playhouse's history. McAnuff went for big moments, big laughs, and delivered. But it missed the deeper core of emotionalism, if I was to quibble.

Three years later, London was different. The 300-seat St. James Theatre has a thrust stage and minimal tech. In order to execute those scene and setting changes they employed two medieval-looking wooden revolves that had to be turned by the actors. The actors were terrific, but the play, in my mind, was a disaster. I was beginning to give up hope that my play could ever be staged in such a way that it showcased all its gifts.

I planned to visit Spain to research the next installment in the Sideways series. I figured if I'm going to go to Spain, why not attend the premiere of Sideways in Riga, which Alvis had humorously retitled Pelicans and Grapes? I made plans to fly to Riga, over Scandinavia, over the Baltic Sea, to a country abutting Russia. Never in a million years did I think I would visit a Baltic country. But the momentum of the play's opening drew me.

I stayed at the Grand Poet Hotel. I learned that actor John Malkovich stayed there when he was directing a play. It's an extraordinary hotel, with all the amenities and then some. Riga, though getting chilly in October, is a lovely city. It's modern, but it has old world charm. Restaurants are fantastic. But on to the play.

Alvis, a classy guy, took me around Riga the day of the first, and only, prevue. We talked theater. I started to get the sense that Latvians took their theater seriously. Very seriously. I was nervous at the prevue. It was sold out. In fact, all the six stagings of my play in Oct. were sold out in a 250-seat theater. And though I don't speak Latvian, I had read the translation twice and I knew where the laughs would come, I knew what the scenes were about. Alvis warned me: "Latvians don't laugh big like Americans, but they're laughing inside." Was he setting me up for failure? When I asked him if he was nervous, he said, "I've directed five operas at La Scala. That's pressure." He also explained to me that he was broadening his aesthetic. He had staged Tracy Letts's black comedy Linda Vista and was having a big success with it. Pelicans and Grapes would be in Latvian, but it would be set in the setting of my novel, the Santa Ynez Valley. The names of places and wines would be right out of my original play/novel.

Before the play started, I noticed the stage was perhaps 35' - 40' wide. Centering it was a table above waist high that was at least 20'-25; feet in length and about 5' feet in depth. In front of this baronial table were placed normal-sized chairs. On the backstage side of the table were chairs that were stools that were taller. The table was empty. My play begins with Miles sleeping off a hangover. The actor playing him (Jānis Skutelis) was lying on the table, curled up. He ignores two phone calls, one from a creditor, the second from his landlord hounding him for the rent. The third call is from his publishing agent. He wakes abruptly and answers the call with alacrity. There's hope. What I realized in that moment was Alvis had decided the table could be a bed. In other versions of my play he's lying in a real bed, a bed that would have to come off the stage for Scene 2 when Miles and Jack hit the road. In addition, as it would progress, every scene begins with a voice over the audio system setting the scene. We hear the sound of keys typing out the words on a keyboard, as if Miles were writing this novel he's about to live. The transitions were that simple, that effortless.

When Jack (Ivars Krasts) makes his entrance, Miles has clambered off the table and the two of them are talking excitedly about their upcoming trip. A bottle of champagne is produced from a duffel bag. The lights dim and when they come up again Miles and Jack are sitting next to each other in the low-elevation downstage chairs. Miles is holding one hand out in front of him pantomiming holding a steering wheel. At La Jolla Playhouse, Des McAnuff wanted a car onstage. He likes tech; he likes props; he likes big things. He ended up, at great expense, having this gigantic black golf cart custom-built. It looked ghastly. Its moniker was "Darth Vader's Golf Cart." No one would dare say that to McAnuff for fear of getting their head bit off. Yes, the golf cart could come and go from the stage quickly, but critics were quick to jump on its garish, overblown presence. Alvis probably didn't have the budget for any simulacrum of a car, let alone one that moved on stage, but I don't think he wanted one anyway.

And so the play unfolded. The lights would briefly dim between scenes and very little would be done by the cast of seven to reset the stage. Chairs would be moved, bottles and wineglasses repositioned, but that was it. One of the problems with previous productions was the setting out and removing of wineglasses and bottles because the play has a lot of wine in it. Alvis ingeniously solved this problem by letting the bottles and wineglasses accumulate on the long table. As the play continues, as the characters imbibe more and more wine, it added an almost subconsciously visual metaphor to the play. As things grow messier, as romances are kindled, lies are disinterred, the accumulation of wine bottles and wineglasses is a brilliant visual testament to what is happening in the narrative: principals are getting drunk; lives are getting messier; the party is reaching new heights, and lows, of emotional extremis. And Alvis conveyed this with the accumulation of bottles and wineglasses. Simple, elegant.

The table, the lone piece of set design, at play's end:

All the directors I've worked with are, to one degree or another, crafts people. They're not really artists in the true sense of the word. They all know how to stage a play and get it up on its feet. In fact, after Opening Night at La Jolla Playhouse a slightly tipsy Des McAnuff hooked an arm around my neck and slurred: "You've got talent, but I've got skill. You've got talent, but I've got skill." I think what he meant was: he could never have written the play I had written, but without him it could never be staged. The difference between a master theatre craftsman like McAnuff and a theatrical artist like Alvis Hermanis is one has to bombard the stage with everything from rear-screen projections to scrims to elaborate lighting cues to miniature cars to put on a show. The other (Alvis) possesses the confidence to realize that the scene and setting changes were going to be difficult, were going to tax the actors, so he designed a minimalist set with the least number of props and put all his attention on the actors and the text. He didn't try to tart it up with commedia dell'arte interludes or throw ham-fisted theatrical wizardly and gimcrackery at the audience to disguise the fact that he had no other solutions to deal with so many scenes and setting changes. No theater director I've worked with has such a great eye for composition, almost like a cinematographer, as Alvis Hermanis. Instead of having his actors running frantically about, he gains maximum emotional and comedic effect by the way he positions them.

There are three big emotional moments in the play. One is when Maya learns that Miles's friend Jack, who is having a torrid affair with Maya's best friend Terra, is getting married in a few days. Alvis positions her up on the table, on her feet, as if heightening her physically on the stage, he's heightening, or underscoring, her harangue against Miles. When Terra accosts Jack she also climbs up onto the table to hurl insults at him. Brilliant compositional symmetry. But, it doesn't end there. When Miles learns from his publishing agent his novel has been rejected and his agent is "retiring the manuscript," a downcast Miles, in utter frustration, picks up a spit bucket in a famous scene from the movie, climbs up onto the table and drinks lustily from it. Those are the only three moments in the play where someone is standing on that table. And they register emotionally in the manner in which they were written.

Maya outraged at the confession Miles's friend Jack is getting married:

Terra's harangue at Jack when she confronts him about his upcoming nuptials:

Miles drinking from the spit bucket:

Miles and Maya have a give-and-take love story. It's infused with seductive talk about wine, Miles's inability to make a move because he fears being compromised when Maya learns Jack is getting married, and so on. The way Alvis positions them on the stage is, in a word, genius. In all the versions of my play where Miles and Maya perform their wine duologue—first Miles, then Maya— they are seated next to each other, shoulder to shoulder. But Alvis spreads them apart on the stage. Maya's wine soliloquy happens to the farthest edge of stage right. All the attention is on her monologue. Miles, being on stage left, is diminished by her words, rendered almost nondescript. He feels close to her, but far away, too. This compositional choice not only showcases Maya (a luminous Jana Čivžele) and her lovely speech, but it highlights the emotional distance between the two characters. Most directors "block" scenes, then bring the props to the actors. Alvis positions actors to heighten whatever is going on in the scene.

The ending of Alvis's adaptation of my play eschews the wedding. When I read the transcript of his adaptation I thought this was a mistake because there are two affecting scenes at the wedding. What Alvis chose to do instead was incorporate Maya's appearance at the wedding (not in the movie) and mash that together with Miles's phone call to her apologizing for all that went wrong on the ill-fated week in the Santa Ynez Valley. Instead of his apology dying on her answering machine, Maya emerges wraithlike from out of the shadows and immediately calls Miles back. They are now at opposite ends of the long table. They are as far apart as two people can get on the stage, which is where they are at emotionally, and as a couple, in the story. It ends on a note of hope, of promise, but with that distance still to be bridged!

Maya and Miles at play's end. Look how far apart Hermanis positions them. This is inspired, brilliant:

The famous wine duologue. Instead of putting Miles and Maya shoulder to shoulder, Hermanis moves them apart. It highlights each of their soliloquies to wine. Your attention is focused on the actor speaking, not the actor reacting.

Alvis also utilized music in a very specific way. McAnuff commissioned someone to do a score, and I don't remember it, it did nothing for me. Alvis would often play piano in a minor key, one note dripping after another note, never even a chord, to accentuate the melancholy of the moment. It was haunting. But he also used source music from famous songs to liven things up when he needed to liven things up. Unlike McAnuff who needed a hot tub to rise up out of the floor, Alvis simply had the four leads climb down off the table and pantomime being in a hot tub. And it worked. And it worked better. It was hilarious when Jack pretended to turn on the Jacuzzi jets and they all started jiggling histrionically. Alvis does more with the audience's imagination, trusts in their willingness to suspend disbelief, than any other director I've ever collaborated with. Two chairs can be a bed. Why not?

In the half dozen versions of my play I've seen I've always had some problems with the cast. I don't want to single otu productions or individual actors because it would be in poor form, but I've often not believed the friendship between Miles and Jack, or the chemistry of the unrequited love story between Maya and Miles. Alvis, working with a repertory theater of nearly 30 revolving cast members, assembled an incredible cast. I've never seen so much affection between Miles and Jack. I don't know if it's a Latvian thing or what, but they're very physical with each other. Jack is often played for broad laughs in other productions, but actor Ivars imbues him with a great sense of tenderness at times. Janis plays the tortured intellectual Miles with self-effacing and self-loathing humor. They are the odd couple, the Vladimir and Estragon of wine.

Miles and Jack in one of many moments where they are physical with each other:

In Sideways the movie, Jack is played as a cad. Payne saw them as more "pathetic" than I did. The play rectifies this. McAnuff again: "I loved the movie, but your play is richer and more emotionally complex. And funnier."

Here's Jack's tenderness toward Terra (Sandra Oh in the movie). I never saw this before in any play version. The chemistry was always exclusively sexual. Here it's a genuine, if fraught, falling in love:

Inga Tropa playing the paramour of Jack didn't hold back on her desires; she owned her sexiness. All the actors, in fact, let themselves go to the text I wrote. Again, I don't understand Latvian, but I knew my play. I was warned that Opening Night would not get as many laughs as the Prevue night. Wrong. There was twice the laughter. Tickets for upcoming shows were snatched up within minutes of posting.

Had I not gone to Riga I never would have seen this sublime version of my play. Had I not gone to Riga I never would have believed this version could exist. At a nearly three-hour running time I thought the play was doomed. Not only was it not doomed, but the audience sat rapt. Alvis Hermanis raised my play to high art. The other versions were all entertaining, on one level of success or another, but my play in Riga, Latvia was alchemized into something greater, something, dare I say, more profound. Plays are malleable, of course. The director and the budget determine its outcome. But I witnessed surprisingly consistent methodologies to staging my play across the board until I got to Riga. There I saw my text transformed into something approaching, even exceeding, high art. Alvis played it for comedy, but he really adapted/directed a play that's a tragi-comedy. And that's the novel I wrote, that's the play I wrote.

Me in the center next to Alvis Hermanis and ringed on both sides by the stellar cast:

Who would have thought I would have found redemption in Riga, Latvia? Who would have thought Latvians would get my play better than Americans? When the movie came out all the credit went to the writer/director and the actors. With the play I've reclaimed ownership of my characters, my story. But it took a decade to see it in all its glorious efflorescence.

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Nov 17, 2023

I would just give almost anything to see that scene about Pinot Noir and that 'separation' between Miles and Maya. How wonderfully described and pictured, Rex. thanks.

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