By Samuel L. Leiter
I admit it. I’m guilty. I sat through Linda Vista, by actor-playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theatre, and enjoyed nearly every one of its 160 minutes, even when it made me squirm. This is, after all, a play about a man who is to masculinity what Chernobyl was to Russia.
I enjoyed its no-holds-barred, locker-room talk; its stingingly acerbic humor; its steamily raw sexuality, including a couple of Broadway’s boldest-ever bedroom romps; its anti-Trump takedowns; its grittily humane depiction of a rotten man’s decline, and his righteous comeuppance; its scenic creativity; and its vigorously dynamic performances. The director responsible is Dexter Bullard, who staged both the 2017 premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, and the present one by the Center Theater Group, which did it in Los Angeles last January.
And, while I was enjoying it—in the sense that I never lost interest and leaned in to hear every clever sentence and wonder what was coming next—I also felt discomfort at several of its unconvincing contrivances and some of its antihero’s toxic, credulity-stretching behavior. Also disturbingly provocative is the closing scene, which hints at a redemption that might also be verging on a relapse into the hot messiness that got him to this point in the first place.
The guy’s name is Dick Wheeler (Ian Barford, tour-de-forcing it) but he avoids his first name because it so perfectly describes him. He’s a self-loathing, unapologetically opinionated, self-destructive, semi-attractive, physically declining (a hip problem), 50-year-old camera repairman and former photojournalist. He’s just moved from exile in his garage into a small, two-bedroom apartment in Linda Vista, a San Diego complex (pool included).
Unusually articulate and know-it-allish, especially regarding pop culture, he’s going through a rough divorce from his (unseen) wife, and is furious about his (also unseen) teenage son’s rebelliousness. Linda Vista explores his regressive attempts to hold onto his vanishing youth. Nothing could be clearer on this front than when—costumed by Laura Bauer—he dons a porkpie hat, black motorcycle jacket, and brothel creepers (yes, that’s a thing).
Wheeler, who fends off his impending decline with rapier-like verbal defenses, meets a bright, sensitive, appealing woman named Jules Iisch (Cora Vander Broek), a “life coach,” on a blind date at a karaoke bar set up by his close friend and confidant, Paul (Jim True-Frost, replacing Tim Hopper of the LA cast), and Paul’s wife, Margaret (Sally Murphy).
Initially reluctant to meet her, and disdainful of her profession, Wheeler melts when Jules sizes him up as “a turtle who doesn’t know he’s lost his shell.” She’s just the woman to deal with his depressive personality, including his intense conviction that he’s an abject failure at photography. Wheeler’s ultimate rejection of Jules is awesomely painful; it’s hard not to clap with others in the audience when he later faces incoming fire from Margaret and the deepfreeze from Jules when he tries bouncing back to her.
Then, another woman enters the picture. This is the 26-year-old Minnie (Chantal Thuy), a tattooed, under-educated, wiser-than-her-years, Vietnamese-American, pink-haired, rockabilly-styled beauty. She seeks Wheeler out when she splits from her abusive boyfriend, whose bun is baking in her oven. With Jules’s consent, Minnie moves in with Wheeler until she can get her act together, a decision that incites the main dramatic action, when Wheeler, despite being warned, “I’ll hurt you,” becomes besotted with this 30-years-younger woman, hoping he can become her baby’s father.
Finally, there’s yet another very young woman, Anita (Caroline Neff), a buxom, recovering addict employed at the camera store (a retro throwback in this digital age) where Wheeler works (and where, honestly, it’s unlikely he’d be earning enough not only to pay alimony but to afford his apartment). Hit on by the white-haired shop owner, Michael (Troy West), an oddball with mother issues, the grounded Anita can fend for herself. Wheeler, though, stung by his own recent experiences, intervenes, with unsettling consequences.
Todd Rosenthal’s set, combining a background of the San Diego skyline fronted by a revolve that allows the episodic action to flow from room to room to the camera shop, helps speed the action along under Marcus Doshi’s pinpoint lighting.
As Wheeler, Barford, despite a slightly singsong line delivery, gives a huge performance, ranging from smartass pontificator to desperate bedpartner to defender of female frailty to begging lover. Broek, outstanding, will break your heart when Wheeler leaves her but will glue it together when she proves that revenge is a dish best served cold. True-Frost’s patient geniality as Paul makes you want him for your own friend, and Murphy’s explosion at Wheeler’s romantic perfidy will not quickly be forgotten. Thuy is invaluable as the snarky yet vulnerable Minnie, Neff is earthily honest as Anita, and West is comically foolish as the clueless Michael.
There’s a lot to admire in Linda Vista, but the view isn’t as pretty as the title promises.
Linda Vista. Through November 10 at the Helen Hayes Theatre/Second Stage (240 West 44th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). Two hours, 40 minutes with one intermission. www.2st.com/shows/linda-vista
Photos: Joan Marcus