Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 10, 2019
Linda Vista by Tracy Letts. Directed by Dexter Bullard. Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal. Costume design by Laura Bauer. Lighting design by Marcus Doshi. Sound design by Richard Woodbury. Dramaturg Edward Sobel. Cast: Ian Barford, Sally Murphy, Caroline Neff, Chantal Thuy, Jim True-Frost, Cora Vander Broek, and Troy West.
Ian Barford both fascinates and repels as the complicated combo pack of sad sack nebbish and self-absorbed narcissist who goes through life building and then resolutely tearing down relationships, a man you might imagine spending hours constructing a maze of dominos than then gleefully kicking at the pieces and scattering them helter-skelter. That's Wheeler, a sometimes companionable, sometimes grumpy, often self-deprecating guy who, though preferring to be called only by his last name, is more than capable of embracing the pejorative connotation of his first name. In short, he can be funny, attractive, and supportive one minute, and a real dick the next.
When we first meet this model of arrested development, he is moving into a nondescript furnished apartment in the Linda Vista community of San Diego. A chief component of Todd Rosenthal's set design is a billboard-like image showing a generic Southern California scene: a waterfront, palm trees, and buildings in the distance. The apartment itself looks like the sort of place where post-college types or transients might briefly settle into before moving on. It is altogether fitting for a man who has spent the last two years living in his estranged wife's garage and whose every conversation sounds like he's had years of practicing the language of pithy sarcasm.
Helping him to shlep boxes into the apartment is one of his few friends, Paul (Jim True-Frost), though Wheeler tells Paul he is a sucker for doing so. "Know what I say when someone asks me to move their shit? No!" Wheeler says on their umpteenth trip hauling stuff. We assume he's being a smartass, but, gradually, we begin to suspect he really means it. In fact, he means every putdown, whether it's aimed at others or, just as frequently, at himself.
Jules, a life coach with a master's degree in "happiness," is coming off a painful breakup herself, but unlike Wheeler, she is determined to get back on her feet. She sees in Wheeler the same sort of unprocessed pain she sees in her clients and in herself, and that empathy causes her to jump with both feet into a sexual and emotional relationship that leaves her terribly vulnerable and exposed. No more plot reveals, but I will quote the woman sitting behind me at the theater, who loud-whispered, "Dude! Really!!!" at the next twist in the storyline.
As a playwright, Mr. Letts has been most fortunate in his career to be working with the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company. His Pulitzer and Tony-winning August: Osage County started there, and Linda Vista is also one of its productions. Both Ian Barford and Cora Vander Broek have been with the show from the start (it also ran at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles), and their performances are pitch perfect. The rest of the cast is also terrific: Chantal Thuy as a young pregnant woman whom Wheeler becomes obsessed with; Troy West as Wheeler's sleezeball boss; and Caroline Neff as a co-worker who has to maneuver past both of these men as she tries to get her own life together.
Letts is quite adroit at painting a group portrait of the characters' screwed-up lives. Unfortunately, the play gets entangled in its own repetitive pattern and piles on dysfunction upon dysfunction without any hint at resolution. It's like "Groundhog Day" for the neurotically maladjusted, and while there is much to appreciate in the performances and the often quite clever dialog, enough becomes more than enough way too soon.