Tracy Letts’ latest play to reach New York via the Chicago Steppenwolf production is the comedy drama, Linda Vista, in which a 50-year-old white man in San Diego going through a messy divorce finds his life spiraling downward as he attempts to deal with his personal demons in a major midlife crisis. Presented in New York by Second Stage Theater, the play delineates a case of toxic masculinity and will most likely fascinate men and infuriate women. While Dick Wheeler played by Ian Barford, longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member, is reprehensible in the comic first act, he is redeemed by the end of the poignant second act where one’s sympathies finally go out to him.
The play begins with Wheeler as he prefers to be called moving into a two bedroom garden apartment in Linda Vista section of San Diego, complete with a pool where men his age dressed in speedos ogle the pretty girls in their bikinis. A former Chicago photojournalist who didn’t believe in himself or his abilities, he now works as a camera repairman in a shop in San Deigo. He has a pretty good knowledge of himself when he tells a co-worker 30ish Anita to whom he is attracted that he has middle aged desperation written all over him. And his bad hip is getting worse but he has done nothing about it.
While his divorce has gone to arbitration and his 13-year-old son Gabe won’t talk to him, he becomes involved with two women: he is introduced to age appropriate Jules, an upbeat life coach, by his best friends Paul and Margaret from his college days, and in a bar meets 26-year-old Minnie, a Vietnamese American with pink hair, tattooed, rockabilly and pregnant who warns him that she brings grief to all her boyfriends. However, Minnie has his number from the beginning: “Let me guess: you’re a deadbeat, work a dead end job, married, no wait divorced, hate your wife and kids, hate everybody, depressed, can’t get laid, your body’s breaking down, the only thing that still runs is your mouth.”
After he becomes intimate with Jules, still reeling from a previous breakup, Minnie arrives at his door with nowhere to live. He takes her in and breaks up with Jules which causes a rift between him and Margaret and Paul. Wheeler fantasizes about bringing up Minnie’s baby, gets a tattoo, and begins wearing a leather jacket. Things spiral out of control and Wheeler gets taken down a peg or two and becomes another person. Two extremely explicit sex scenes are hilarious which only serves to make Wheeler feel worse. Directed by Chicago’s Dexter Bullard, Letts’ dialogue and characters are very well realized. Not only does the play offer the shock of recognition, we know these characters as very real people.
Barford, who has originated four roles in plays by Tracy Letts and appeared in the Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County, gives a big expansive performance as Wheeler. Bigger than life and self-deprecating, foul-mouthed and sensitive all at the same time, he turns Wheeler from an obnoxious middle-aged man into one that we care about. The four women in his life that we meet could not be more different although all have been damaged at various times in their lives. Cora Vander Broek’s Jules always looks on the bright side but wears her heart on her sleeve. As the much younger Minnie, Chantal Thuy is hard-edged, blunt spoken and a cynical product of her generation. Sally Murphy’s Margaret (also a stand in for Wheeler’s ex-wife) is angry, judgmental and impassioned. Voluptuous Caroline Neff makes Anita, also dealing with recovery, possibly the most well-adjusted of them all.
Jim True-Frost and Troy West are foils for Wheeler: as his confidant Paul, True-Frost is a together person who has regrets but does not let it get in the way of his day to day life. Although he always gives Wheeler good advice, Wheeler never seems to listen to him. West as Wheeler’s boss Michael at the camera store is a much more toxic male than Wheeler and finally Wheeler is able to see him for what he is. For the record, four of these actors have appeared in Letts’ August: Osage County in New York: Ian Barford played Little Charles in Chicago, New York and London, while Jim True Frost replace him in the New York production as Little Charles. Sally Murphy played heroine Ivy Weston on Broadway and in London as well. Troy West who created the role of Sherriff Deon Gilbeau at Steppenwolf went on to play the role on Broadway, in London and in the Sydney productions. He has also appeared in the Off Broadway production of Lett’s Bug. Barford has also created the roles of Ray in Mary Page Marlowe (played in the Second Stage production by David Aaron Baker) and Carp in The Minutes which has not been seen in New York as of yet.
Todd Rosenthal’s many sets are well-served by a turntable which becomes tiresome eventually but does change the ambiance in each scene. The costumes by Laura Bauer immediately define these different contemporary characters. Marcus Doshi’s lighting captures the various times of day covered in the storyline. Richard Woodbury’s useful sound design includes the karaoke session as well as numerous pop songs which comment on the action.
Other than that each of his works has had a self-deprecating main character, Tracy Letts’ plays have been so different from one another that one never knows what to expect next. Linda Vista is certain to be controversial with theatergoers who will be on one side or the other concerning Wheeler’s fate. Whatever your view, the play is hilarious, real, poignant and recognizable, and adds luster to Tracy Letts’ continuing output.
Linda Vista (through November 10, 2019)
Second Stage Theater in association with Center Theatre Group (Los Angeles)
The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission