Dick Wheeler, the lead character – he’s hardly a “hero” – in Tracy Letts’ Linda Vista, a very funny new play about a very sad, not very likable man, is the type of determined, opinionated loser who has reached middle age with both a decided pride and worn-down boredom with his own contrariness, his mental library of trivia and hard-knock wisdom having left him with little more than a flabby gut, a failed marriage, a few sticks of cheap furniture and the confidence that he alone knows best which Ali MacGraw movie showed the actress at her sexiest (Convoy, in case you were wondering) and why Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is nothing but a “scrubby little poser”.
Linda Vista, opening tonight at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater in a Second Stage presentation of the Steppenwolf production, opens with a scene that includes Wheeler’s easy conversation with his only friend – their bond goes back to college, one of Letts’ many insightful hints indicating just how long Wheeler, as he prefers to be known, has been coasting on his past – neatly encapsulates the intellectual self-assurance that’s equaled to, and at odds with, an obstinate cluelessness at reading other people and his lousy way with them.
“I was out to dinner with this girl,” says Wheeler (Ian Barford, in a brave and inspired performance) to buddy Paul (Jim True-Frost, a longtime treasure, like Letts himself, of Chicago’s Steppenwolf company), “and we were talking. Turns out she…”
Well, let’s let the man speak for himself:
Turns out she comes from this big military family, like everybody in the family has served, and I hear this and I’m thinking “Please don’t say some dumb shit about the stupid border wall or NFL players taking a knee cause I just won’t handle it well,” and so I play it cool, y’know, “Thanks for their service,” or whatever, and think I said, very concerned, “Too bad we’re always stuck in these pointless bullshit wars, like too bad all these motherf*ckers are dead for no good reason. And she went off on me! I said, “Didn’t I say ‘Thanks for their service?’ I’m on their side, I don’t want these guys going off and dying, I think they should just stay anchored out there in the bay doing their dumb f*cking maneuvers and doing, y’know, pushups.”
Yeah, how could any soldier’s loved ones take offense at that?
Separated, near divorced from his wife and entirely estranged from his troubled teenage son, stuck in a dead-end, settled-for job in another era’s camera shop that’s a pale ghost of his long-dead ambitions to be a photographer, Wheeler is extended what could well be his final lifeline when Paul and wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) set him up on a date with Jules (Cora Vander Broek), an optimistic, platitude-spouting life coach that at first seems (to Wheeler and the audience) little more than the airheaded caricature that her career – she has a Master’s Degree in, of all things, “Happiness” – would suggest.
But no sooner has their destined-for-disaster karaoke bar blind date hit a make-or-break point than Jules and Wheeler find common ground, an unexpected mutual attraction that prompts both a hilarious and awkward fight-night sexual encounter and, more seriously, an honest and revelatory relationship.
Even the potential complication – a beautiful, troubled young woman who Wheeler knows only fleetingly from the pool at their shared apartment complex, shows up at his door in serious trouble and needing a place to stay – seems, at first, just another sign of Wheeler’s growing maturity. Minnie (Chantal Thuy) becomes fast friends with, and a bit of a project for, with both Wheeler and Jules.
But that’s only the first act. Well before intermission, we know Wheeler is going to sabotage his newfound happiness one way or another, but the degree of thoroughness and the extent of his nihilism still comes as a shock. At the reviewed performance, gasps and a loud, disgusted shout of “Really????” punctuated a moment the likes of which you only think you see coming.
Directed by Dexter Bullard, Linda Vista – the title refers to the San Diego neighborhood where Wheeler most unhappily resides – employs a harsh but irresistibly funny humor, which you’ll already know if you’ve seen the playwright’s Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County.
But while that celebrated comedy sprinkled the family drama genre with Letts’ signature dark wit, Linda Vista seems to be the playwright’s attempt at usurping no less a Broadway convention than Neil Simon. The set-up is there: A shlubby, middle-aged, down-on-his-luck who speaks in rapid-fire one-liners meant to hide the hurt in his soul meets a the goodbye girl he never knew he needed. The dialogue is both credible and comedically heightened – Wheeler’s brilliant take-down of comic-book culture and the stunted immaturity of Hollywood and its fanboys could give Martin Scorsese a pointer or two – just the sort of wish-I’d-said-that zingers that Simon made look so simple.
But then things go very dark. A secondary character that initially seemed amusingly eccentric is shown for the seriously creepy slimeball he is; Paul’s wife – and that’s all she is, initially – emerges as a full character in her own right with a searing bit of truth-telling that flips an entire, playful scene on its head; and that goodbye girl goes places Marsha Mason would never have dreamed of.
Played out on Todd Rosenthal’s nicely detailed and efficiently mobile set – a realistically outlived-its-era camera shop, Wheeler’s expertly presented cookie-cutter apartment that all but wails “divorced dad” – Linda Vista is helped along by a terrific cast, attired in Laura Bauer’s stitch-perfect costumes that perfectly illustrate both the malaise of the characters and, in one clever turnabout, the absurd desperation of a 50-year-old man who fools himself (and no one else) into thinking he could live the life of the young hipsters he envies.
He can’t, of course, and his awakening is no less rude for being expected. Letts, his director and his cast show no mercy on characters whose lurking selfishness and cruelty would, in any Neil Simon comedy, give way to repentance and forgiveness. Linda Vista doesn’t let anyone off the hook that easily, and if there’s hope to be had, it won’t come cheap.
Linda Vista, a Second Stage presentation of a Steppenwolf Theatre Company production, opens tonight at the Helen Hayes Theater.