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Besides the obvious breach of audience fourth wall decorum that any such uprising would cause, warnings wouldn't do any good. Wheeler is not, in fact, an idiot. He's heard these things before. The man knows who he is. He's suffered the slings and arrows, and somehow he still thinks he's the smartest guy in the room. What's more, he's probably right.
Those who have sojourned with Letts across the landscapes of plays like Bug, Killer Joe, August: Osage County and Superior Donuts may find themselves surprised that the playwright (and sometime actor) had a Linda Vista cooking. This one's a character study &emdash; a humor-laced stare-down of middle age, of opportunities missed and of the relationships we spoil.
Wheeler is 53 and headed nowhere. He may not fit the classic definition of an anti-hero (too likeable!), but he's pretty messed up. Barford, a veteran of several plays by Letts, headlines the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Linda Vista now at the Taper and delivers a performance to savor. The remainder of director Dexter Bullard's company is pretty cracker-jack as well.
The play is set in San Diego, largely in an apartment complex overlooking the ocean. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal has positioned a turntable of rooms that spin, hotel door-like, beneath a glittery waterfront skyline. This may not be anybody's idea of paradise (a concept that Wheeler would eschew anyway), but there are women to be found here. Wheeler is some months past the breakup of his marriage, which he caused. His teen-age son barely talks to him. But he's still got a worshipful friend from college, Paul (Tim Hopper), and Paul's wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), both of whom are looking out for his well-being.
A former photographer and artist himself, Wheeler now works in a camera repair shop where he flirts unsuccessfully with his younger co-worker Anita (Caroline Neff). We've also got the camera store's lustful owner Michael (Troy West) whose every uttered syllable would probably land him in a sexual harassment suit
In a bar, Wheeler puts the moves on Minnie (Chantal Thuy), an acerbic heavily tattooed woman barely in her 20s who, we will come to learn, lives in Wheeler's building. She too shoots him down, but they will meet again under different circumstances. Where the ladies are concerned, Wheeler is a king of the swing-and-miss. Paul characterizes him as living out of a Steely Dan song and the description is pretty damned spot-on.
Things take a turn for the hopeful when they set him up on a date with a comely life coach, Jules Ish (Cora Vander Broeck). It's a double date at a karaoke bar. Jules, Paul and Margaret all sing. Wheeler scoffs, seeing no common ground with Jules and tries to figure out his escape route. Jules is having none of it. She spots the shambling nobility in our Wheeler and, having helped clients work through their difficulties, Jules is herself ready to fall in love.
A note about nudity. Linda Vista has it. Wheeler may be breaking down, but he has plenty of interest in sex, particularly since it makes him feel young. Prudes be warned, the play contains a couple of fairly raw scenes, some of which contain some great comic moments. The women of this play are damaged (some even by Wheeler), but they are also every bit in charge.
Is Wheeler destined to clean up his act and find a meaningful human connection? Do we even want him too? Ultimately, yeah, we probably do. The playwright builds this character up a few times only to smack him right back down to earth again. Barford, a very skilled actor, allows us to watch the man bleed. As cool and wise as this guy is, Barford's Wheeler is not immune to loneliness or to embracing the humiliation of admitting how badly he has screwed things up. We almost forgive him his many trespasses. Almost.
A Steppenwolf ensemble usually means terrific acting. In addition to the great work turned in by Barford, the women of Linda Vista are equally outstanding. Thuy‘s Minnie is equal parts razor blades and catnip, a breaker of hearts who at least has the decency to warn you first. Neff packs a lot of substance into Anita's two bookending scenes. Murphy and Hopper give us a window into a complicated marriage, one which Wheeler has affected in not the best of ways.
And then there's Vander Broeck whose rendering of the life coach is, in many ways, the play's touchstone. Where Jules Ish with her kooky names and aphorisms could have been a sketch or a cipher, Vander Broeck takes the character apart, reassembles her and makes her whole. Watching her do it is watching a thing of beauty.
Depending on where you are in life, you may find Linda Vista to be either very funny or very depressing; maybe both. Which of us, Letts asks, wouldn't want a to take a bite of the apple at age 53? The Wheelers of the world chomp down hard. They often break their jaws in the process.
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Linda Vista by Tracy Letts
Directed by Dexter Bullard
Cast: Ian Barford, Tim Hopper, Sally Murphy, Caroline Neff, Chantal Thuy, Cora Vander Broek, Troy West
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Laura Bauer
Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi
Sound Design: Richard Woodbury
Projection Design: Hannah Wasileski
Dramaturg: Edward Sobel
Production Stage Manager: David S. Franklin
Plays through February 17, 2019 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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