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Theatre in Review: Linda Vista (Helen Hayes Theatre)

Ian Barford, Caroline Neff. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Linda Vista is a romantic comedy, Tracy Letts-style, which means that the human toll is enormous. Wheeler, a fifty-year-old loser, his marriage in the tank and his adolescent son no longer speaking to him, is starting over again in a tacky San Diego apartment complex: It sounds like the pilot for a hundred television situation comedies. But, thanks to the author's caustic way with dialogue and his brutally candid cast of characters, the play is unmistakably the work of the man who gave us August: Osage County, among other exercises in the truth that hurts. Wheeler, fed up with sleeping on a cot in his soon-to-be-ex-wife's garage, is trying to move on, but he proudly views the world through narrowed eyes and a permanent look of distaste. He is a curmudgeon's curmudgeon, dispensing iconoclastic opinions about sincerity (it can be faked), fun (totally overrated), and the younger generation (he doesn't want to meet anyone who doesn't remember New Coke). When a potential girlfriend notes that her father liked him, he responds that they bonded over their mutual hatred for the phrase "no worries." In one of many shock laughs, he offers an endorsement of abortion flippant enough to cause heart attacks among the conservative Catholics in Heroes of the Fourth Turning over at Playwrights Horizons.

Dividing his days between his barely furnished new apartment (in the community of the title) and a drab job as a camera repairman, Wheeler has little to look forward to, and that's the way he likes it. Then his married friends Paul and Margaret throw him together with Jules, a life coach -- a career that, with him, is a setup for punchlines. (Pushing her luck, she tells him that he has an MA in happiness; she is also an enthusiastic, and truly terrible, karaoke vocalist.) But Jules is a canny observer, and, thanks to a few sharp observations from her -- after one of his rants, she describes him as a turtle without a shell -- he becomes intrigued. A spark develops between a woman who professionally espouses growth and reinvention and a man who proudly, almost defiantly, occupies a rut of his own making. Surprisingly, this cues what may be the most graphic sexual encounter ever seen on a Broadway stage -- a comic series of mishaps that ends with the participants separately engaged, one of them reading The Atlantic Monthly.

Even this sequence isn't played for cheap laughs; instead, it sets up a painfully intimate conversation that makes clear that these two singular, wounded souls are strangely suited to each other, and that they may have a shot at something real. But, having raised the possibility of romantic fulfillment, Letts throws into the mix Minnie, a young Vietnamese-American rockabilly fan who, at twenty, has her own impressive trail of disaster; on the run from her abusive boyfriend, she finds a temporary home with Wheeler. Taking a shot of Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, Minnie announces that she is pregnant, but it's no big deal, because she is having an abortion sooner or later anyway.

As for what happens next, my lips are sealed, but let's just say that for even a practiced screw-up like Wheeler the decisions that follow are epically bad, setting the stage for a series of blistering confrontations with a quartet of women who strip away his pretensions until there is nothing left. Before Linda Vista is over, Wheeler will be brought to his knees; even when, in a stab at reform, he tries to help a sexually harassed female colleague, he can't help but cause more chaos.

Ian Barford, something of a Letts regular, seizes the role of Wheeler for the kind of tour-de-force performance people talk about long after the curtain has fallen. A big man gone halfway to seed, his eyes embedded in pouches, his voice rumbling with contempt for nearly everything the twenty-first century has to offer, he is a charmer and a nightmare rolled into one, gradually unbending as he falls under Jules' spell, then committing a shocking betrayal followed by an equally terrible act of cruelty; he falls apart physically as well, his gait growing painfully halting thanks to an ailing hip. And wait for the look of horrified recognition in his eyes when, having made a number of painful admissions -- regarding the end of his photography career and his son's hostility -- an unimpressed listener responds coolly with "Is that your monologue?"

Only the bravest of actors would essay a character this knotty; at the performance I attended, the audience gasped at some of Wheeler's more despicable moments, and, when subjected to an especially brutal takedown, some of the more woke ladies in the orchestra snapped their fingers in approval. The danger of losing the audience is omnipresent in Linda Vista, but Barford gambles that the character is well-enough written to be fascinating on his own difficult terms, and it's a bet that pays off handsomely.

Then again, everyone in Dexter Bullard's production, originally seen at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, is firmly on Letts' uncompromisingly honest wavelength. Cora Vander Broek's Jules is an equally complex figure whose hard-won optimism has its steely, self-protective side. Jim True-Frost, as Paul, precisely parses a speech in which he portrays his own marriage as a model of contentment while simultaneously arguing that marriage as an institution is indefensible. Sally Murphy sizzles in her big scene as Margaret, who, after years of amused tolerance, calls Wheeler out for his nonsense with women. Chantal Thuy is striking as Minnie, busy mapping the route to her next personal disaster. As Wheeler's boss and co-worker, Troy West and Caroline Neff nimbly act out Letts' take on the complex sexual politics than can afflict even a three-person workplace.

For a play that moves swiftly across numerous locations, set designer Todd Rosenthal makes good use of a turntable, above which is spread a wide vista of the San Diego waterfront; Wheeler's largely undecorated apartment is an especially sad-looking space, speaking volumes about his untethered state. Marcus Doshi's lighting provides a series of varied looks, reshaping the space and resetting the tone as needed. Laura Bauer's costumes -- especially Minnie's intentionally outrageous ensembles and Wheeler's painful attempt at a more youthful look -- are excellent character studies. Richard Woodbury's sound design fills the scenic transitions with eighties pop -- a leftover from most of the characters' pasts -- especially the music of Steely Dan, along with the ubiquitous roar of airplanes over San Diego.

After all the emotional carnage, Letts leaves the door ever so slightly ajar for the possibility of a better, more integrated Wheeler in the future. Make no mistake, however: Any improvement is going to take an enormous amount of work. It's a sign of Linda Vista's success that one leaves the theatre hoping that the son of a bitch makes it. -- David Barbour

(17 October 2019)

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