'Linda Vista': Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
Ian Barford and Caroline Neff in 'Linda Vista'
Too sad, but too funny to notice

Most of the original cast of Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts' 2017 Steppenwolf premiere make it to Los Angeles in this clever and entertaining chronicle of a mid-life trainwreck.

The title of Tracy Letts’ Linda Vista is not a person's name, it means "nice view" in Spanish. It's also an apartment complex in San Diego. The newest tenant there is Dick Wheeler, who prefers to be called simply "Wheeler," a 50-year-old conjugal loser moving out of his ex's garage and into his own place. Some might argue the white male has become a bit of a punching bag lately, others would claim he deserves it. Exhibit A in both arguments is Wheeler himself, an obtuse, self-involved charmer with the emotional acuity of a child.

In Letts' impressive body of writing, he often builds his dramas around an ensemble rather than a protagonist, as he did in August: Osage County, which won him both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize; he later penned the movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. His Wheeler is a whip-smart, hilarious, occasionally obnoxious and ultimately self-serving, insecure little man at the center of this uproarious and astutely executed character study.

Linda Vista arrives in Los Angeles with six of the seven original actors from its 2017 world premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, working under the nimble direction of Steppenwolf regular and longtime Letts collaborator Dexter Bullard. The smartest guy in the play doing the dumbest things in the world is Wheeler, portrayed by a scruffy and prickly Ian Barford (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). A promising news photographer for the Chicago Sun Times, he quit because he didn't think he had what it takes to produce fine art. He then turned his talents to camera repair where he works alongside Anita (Caroline Neff), overseen by their creepy manager Michael (Troy West).

His strong opinions on everything from cinema to Trump to Radiohead to marriage run the gamut from amusing to annoying in the ears of his old college friend Paul (Tim Hopper) and the latter's wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), who dated Wheeler before their marriage. On a double date to a karaoke bar, the couple introduces him to Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach who has a master's degree in happiness. Wheeler runs down a list of his dislikes, to which Jules responds, "It's more fun to like things." Despite opposite dispositions, the two hook up in what just might be the funniest sex scene ever written, and spend every night together for a month. Complications ensue when Wheeler meets Minnie (Chantal Thuy), a twenty-something neighbor who turns to him in need.

Linda Vista's strongest elements spring from Letts' nuanced handling of his characters. The multi-faceted Wheeler isn't easily pinned down. He's smart but stupid, sincere but a liar, sometimes sweet and often surly. His infidelities are less based on desire than alleviating an all-consuming sense of inadequacy that traps him in the same patterns that led to his current predicament to begin with. "You're like a turtle that doesn't know he's lost his shell," Jules enlightens him.

In the opening moments, Wheeler's disheveled appearance cues the audience to his type, offering a superficial glimpse as he and Tom move his belongings into the new apartment. On the topic of Ali MacGraw's sex life, we get a sense of the dynamic between the two, with Wheeler dominating as he does every relationship. But it's what's unspoken, the personal baggage Wheeler refuses to confront, that becomes a blockage taking on greater prominence as time passes. Barford unwraps his character, laying him before us in a manner that seems straightforward and simple in spite of the complicated psyche suggested.

Through his performance, he exemplifies one of the production's greatest strengths; a casual ease affording astute insights into human behavior. Likewise, Vander Broek, as Jules, appears guilelessly uncomplicated at first, with her "master's in happiness." But as their relationship develops, it's clear she's thoughtful, stable, intelligent, patient and devoted, more than the likes of Wheeler deserves. In a similar position of vulnerability when they meet, she handles herself with dignity and poise, making her hard lessons the heartbeat of the play.

As Paul and Margaret, Hopper and Murphy seem to exemplify the type of relationship Wheeler ought to aspire to. But in Letts' hands their relationship is merely healthy enough to sustain as Paul admits to Wheeler that marriage isn't really worth it. Thuy, as Minnie, is the least realized character, though Letts provides her with a compelling backstory and predicament. Despite Thuy's solid performance, Minnie's lack of agency renders her the most device-like of the playwright's principal characters.

As Wheeler's workmates at the camera shop, West and Neff are limited to two scenes but make the most of them. With his nights spent watching TV with his mom and days spent ogling Anita, Michael could be a vision of Wheeler in 10 years. Anita ignores his salacious comments since she's in recovery, working hard to stay clean, and really needs the job.

Just as Letts makes the process seem easy, Bullard makes the production flow, matching the naturalism in the text to his cast's mannerisms and delivery. Barford is a smooth blunt force of nature in his scenes, with Jules devotedly propping him up in the early going, creating a harmonious dynamic of opposites that resonates in his friendship with Paul. Wheeler's energy with Minnie is likewise concordant yet forced, portending the relationship's outcome. The casual digressions and disagreements over matters both significant and small make for fluid readings facilitated by set designer Todd Rosenthal's inventive rotating set, conveniently dialing up Wheeler's apartment, workspace and various bars and restaurants as needed. 

"Tracy allowed his own voice to come through so directly in Wheeler," Barford says of his longtime friend in a production note. "The rants on politics, music, culture, etc., are definitely autobiographical." Letts calls Linda Vista his favorite play, though he has reservations about Wheeler. "I love and hate this central character, maybe because my connection with him is a little more direct, a little more immediate than some of the other characters I write."

As witty and skillful as anything Letts has written, Linda Vista is not the rebuke to privileged white men it might appear to be. As a playwright, he's too smart, and Wheeler has too many shadings, for it to be that reductive. Instead, what Letts has given us is a portrait of anyone too short-sighted to get out of his or her own way, and the traps they set for themselves. The playwright sums it up succinctly in the final scene, in which Anita concludes, "It's harder than it looks, being a person."

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Cast: Ian Barford, Tim Hopper, Sally Murphy, Caroline Neff, Chantal Thuy, Cora Vander Broek, Troy West

Playwright: Tracy Letts
Director: Dexter Bullard
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Laura Bauer
Lighting designer: Marcus Doshi
Sound designer: Richard Woodbury
Presented by Center Theatre Group, Steppenwolf Theatre Company