What does ‘starting over’ really mean if you’re stuck in the same self-destructive behavior patterns? In Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Linda Vista, a new play by Tracy Letts that opened this week at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, a middle-aged man attempts to figure out what options remain for him in life when his marriage blows up, realizing this might be impossible without first coming to terms with his past.
Wheeler (Ian Barford) is fifty years old and has just moved from his estranged wife’s garage to his own starter apartment in the Linda Vista neighborhood of San Diego—a modest, pre-furnished bachelor pad from which if you stand in just the right spot and crane your neck just so, you can see a sliver of the ocean. A one-time newspaper photographer who now works in a camera repair shop, Wheeler has a bad hip and an even worse attitude. He also has a fridge full of takeout, a contentious in-process divorce, a brooding teenage son he never sees and rarely thinks of, and a long list of opinions no one wants to hear.
One night, his long-suffering best friend, Paul (Tim Hopper) and his wife, Margaret (Sally Murphy) drag Wheeler out on a double date with their excruciatingly optimistic friend, Jules (Cora Vander Broek). Jules is a life coach, an occupation Wheeler finds utterly laughable, and is the type to unironically sing Lisa Loeb at karaoke. But somehow, they hit it off anyway. It’s not that simple, though, because Wheeler has another woman in his life, his 26-year-old neighbor, Minnie (Chantal Thuy), who turns to him for help when her own home situation becomes unsafe. Rounding out the cast are Wheeler’s two co-workers at the camera shop—Michael (Troy West), the gross, misogynistic, creepy boss and Anita (Caroline Neff), a constantly harassed woman in recovery who does her best to not let the toxic work environment bother her.
Directed by Dexter Bullard, the real star here is Letts’s writing, which is at once subtle, nuanced, and laugh-out-loud funny. Background information and complex character relationships are drawn and revealed organically and easily, and each of the six characters gets a memorable moment to shine. With multiple references to Trump’s presidency making clear the story is very current, there is plenty of ingrained commentary on toxic masculinity. Wheeler certainly does not know how to treat women well, but every time the story begins to delve into tricky territory, the female characters are refreshingly self-respecting, well-rounded, and not willing to put up with his nonsense. While Wheeler might not be aware of the problems with his own behavior, the show certainly is, and it’s ultimately up to the audience to decide whether or not to sympathize with him at the end. It feels like empathy is the desired effect, but this play is entertaining either way, its two and a half hours flying by.
The set (Todd Rosenthal) features a turntable that allows for some dynamic transitions as the action moves between the rooms of Wheeler’s apartment, including some rather graphic simulated sex scenes that narrowly avoid feeling gratuitous because they are so well-aligned with the brutally honest tone of the piece. The scenes that take place outside of the apartment fall a bit flat visually, although the snappy dialogue provides plenty of distraction.
Barford is magnetic in the lead role, possessing great comedic timing and embracing the physical comedy as Wheeler sinks deeper and deeper into his mid-life crisis. Vander Broek is also a standout as Jules. A character whose primary trait is cheerfulness can easily become cartoonish, but she provides an impressive amount of depth, using small moments to paint a character who is more complex than the text alone might indicate her to be.
Stories about a damaged man going through a mid-life crisis are a dime a dozen, really, but the 2019 spin and Letts’s sharp dialogue make this one well worth seeing. The pacing is excellent, building to a poignant and memorable final scene that lands regardless of whether or not you have decided Wheeler to be redeemable.
Linda Vista runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through February 17th. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. This production contains nudity and adult content and is not recommended for children under 16. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.
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