By Christopher Caggiano
Dramatist Tracy Letts’s new play is raw, funny, and intensely personal.
Is there any genre staler than the white guy midlife-crisis drama? Particularly those involving haggard middle-aged men hooking up with nubile young women as a sort of wish-fulfillment on the part of writers who’ve never been near anything even remotely nubile?
At first glance, the new Broadway play Linda Vista (Helen Hayes Theatre) might seem to fall into this chimerical mode, and it might have done so in the hands of a less accomplished scribe than Tracy Letts, Pulitzer Prize winner for August: Osage County, and author of Killer Joe and Bug.
Linda Vista is actually the first of two Letts plays announced for Broadway this season, the other being The Minutes, which is schedule to open this spring. The play is a presentation by Second Stage Theater, Broadway’s newest resident non-profit, of a Steppenwolf Theater production.
Letts assiduously avoids any romanticizing in Linda Vista, which is story of one Dick Wheeler. Despite the porn-worthy name, Wheeler is a bit of a schlub, a scruffy, misanthropic, overgrown child of a man, who has just been kicked out of his soon to be ex-wife’s garage. When the play opens, we see Wheeler and his friend Paul moving Wheeler’s stuff into a dingy new apartment in a grim complex that seems designed for middle-aged divorcees and twenty-something transients.
Wheeler is played with penetrating sadness by Ian Barford, who masterfully played the tortured Little Charles in Letts’s August: OsageCounty. Barford adopts a soulful thousand-yard stare, strikingly capturing the depth of Wheeler’s self-loathing and isolation. It’s an extraordinarily brave performance, which in modern theatrical parlance usually means full nudity, which certainly applies here, but also in terms of raw emotion.
Ever the bitter quip master, Wheeler flails beneath a dense cloud of harsh cynicism. A series of compromises have brought him to a career dead-end: although he once held promise as a newspaper photographer, he has been reduced to repairing classic cameras in an age of smart phones. He becomes inflamed with rage at the mere suggestion of hope.
Wheeler’s married friends Paul and Margaret set Wheeler up on a blind date that at first seems like a very bad idea. Wheeler is at times a repellent human, rendering harsh judgements upon any and all comers, although he reserves his harshest verdicts for himself. Wheeler improbably winds up hitting it off with the woman Paul and Margaret have set him up with, Jules, played with appealing strength and vulnerability by Cora Vander Broek.
Wheeler also winds up bedding a young, wayward pregnant women named Minnie (a spiky Chantal Thuy in a memorable Broadway debut). It’s actually kind of amazing that this sour-faced cynic gets as much action as he does, although he also has a knack for sabotaging even the most promising of his personal relationships.
Director Dexter Bullard gives each scene a palpable verisimilitude, and each performance, even the most minor ones, a sense of complexity, aided of course by Letts’s rich characterizations. Todd Rosenthal’s efficient revolving set allows for fluid staging, particularly between Wheeler’s drab living room and much-trafficked bedroom.
The remainder of the cast comprises the kind of strong ensemble the Steppenwolf is famous for. It’s almost a shame to pick anyone out, they work so well together. Notable are Jim True-Frost as Paul, Wheeler’s nearly-as-stunted best friend, and Sally Murphy, vibrant and layered as always as Paul’s no-nonsense wife.
Linda Vista feels like an intensely personal play for Letts, by turns howlingly funny and deeply unsettling. At first, the dialogue has a glib artificiality to it, with the laughs-per-minute rate of a classic sitcom, but once the play pushes past Wheeler’s gruff exterior, we see the raw pain and disappointment that lie at the core of our anti-hero. At times, Linda Vista feels overly episodic, although by the end the disparate narrative threads tie up nicely. And by “nicely,” I mean the way that they should for a man like Wheeler.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.