Jan. 23, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman
"Linda Vista," Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, Jan. 9 – Feb. 17, 2019
In Brief: Life’s a bitch, and then you get old. That’s the cheerless predicate of ʼ"Linda Vista." Still, the author’s barbed observations on relationships, current politics, and life in general along with a courageous, extraordinary acting ensemble makes it all palatable, if not exactly comforting.
If it is possible to find happiness and fulfillment in this life, you wouldn’t know it from Tracy Letts’s uneasy new play Linda Vista.
The main character in this sobering drama – albeit one with many comic undertones and snarky jabs – has reached the ripe age of 50 with little to show other than a life in shambles. It’s a moment for either tough self-reflection and possible redemption or a mid-life crisis. You can guess which one Letts’s anti-hero chooses.
Ian Barford in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Tracy Letts’ "Linda Vista" (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Wheeler (Ian Barford) is in the midst of a bitter divorce, estranged from his deeply troubled teenage son, and working in a dead-end job as a camera repairman rather than as the professional photographer he once was. We eventually learn that his plight is actually much worse than this. He’s on the brink, swimming in a toxic brew of bitterness, disparagement, and self-loathing over a lifetime of compromises and failures.
We don’t see this right away. For much of the first act, he comes off as more of a diverting jerk rather than an emotional train wreck. He makes jokes about Donald Trump, about relationships, and about himself. In fact, for an hour the play seems to be a mildly amusing observational comedy, as Letts and director Dexter Bullard deliberately introduce the characters that figure prominently in the work’s explosive, gripping second act.
There’s Wheeler’s new age-appropriate girlfriend Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach whose optimistic outlook both contrasts with his prickly personality and reflects the play’s idealized San Diego setting, which looms seductively bright and inviting in the background of production designer Todd Rosenthal’s otherwise spare but effective sets.
There’s his earnest best friend Paul (Tim Hopper) and Paul’s no-nonsense wife Margaret (Sally Murphy).
The entire ensemble is a gift to the playwright and the audience.
And there’s Wheeler’s flighty, much younger neighbor Minnie (Chantal Thuy) who knocks on his door late one night, seeking refuge after a fight with her abusive boyfriend. She’s impertinent, fresh, quirky – just what the doctor ordered for an aging loser eager to avoid the harsh reality of his own despair.
Linda Vista was first performed in 2017 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre by many of the same fine actors on stage now in Los Angeles. Letts, a seasoned performer as well as accomplished writer, has created rich characters, with distinct personalities and backstories, for each of them to mine. And the actors give each character his or her full due, rising to dramatic heights when called on, while never straying far from the underlying humanity and vulnerabilities of their characters.
But it is Barford, on stage for nearly all of the play’s two and one-half hour length, who impresses the most. He is the backbone of this production. His Wheeler is compulsive and destructive. We should not like him at all, but we come to care about him a great deal. That’s the mark of an actor in full command of his powers.
At the outset of Act Two, Wheeler faces a dilemma: Should he stay with Jules, who loves and encourages him, or take up with the impetuous, unreliable Minnie? Of course, there’d be no conflict if he made the right choice. Indeed, Letts makes it clear that Wheeler’s irresponsible decision is pre-ordained when in a scene early in the first act Wheeler tells Paul that people don’t do what they should do, they do what they want to do. They can’t help themselves.
That’s life, or at least Wheeler’s version of it.
We’d like to think that there are many positive things about growing older. Letts wants us to know that as far as the characters in Linda Vista are concerned, most of them are lies.
"Linda Vista," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org