Can an underemployed middle-aged jerk be a babe magnet? That’s a question theatergoers are likely to ask about Wheeler, the central character in Linda Vista, Tracy Letts’ latest play on Broadway. Some women will surely ask the question rhetorically and in disgust; some men, full of hope.
Indeed, your ability to get past that question – and, more generally, your willingness to entertain yet another middle-aged white guy comedy – is a gauge of how much you will appreciate this showcase for some impressive acting and very funny writing.
Ian Barford gives a brave and masterful performance as Dick Wheeler, who we first see moving into a drab apartment in the Linda Vista neighborhood of San Diego, California, with the help of his old pal Paul (Jim True-Frost.) Right off the bat, we notice how selfish Wheeler is: He tells Paul that he would never help a friend move like this. We also learn how comical a curmudgeon, as he riffs and rants about politics, celebrity sex addicts, celebrity endorsements, how he hates every American movie since 1984, and his own sorry lot in life. His wife divorced him because he cheated on her, and before the move to this apartment he was living in her garage.
Once a newspaper photographer, he gave that up and now works part-time in a camera repair shop for an obnoxious, depressive boss. “…every story about me could end with the sentence ‘And he was humiliated,’” Wheeler says at one point. Even his teenage son won’t talk to him. At age 50, he considers himself a loser: “I’m too old to pretend to be something I’m not and a lot of the things I am are not attractive.”
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Yet when Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) set him up on a date with her friend Jules (Cora Vander Broek), she becomes the first of three women over the course of the play with whom Wheeler becomes involved. The second, Minnie (Chantal Thuy), is half his age. These first two get into a sexual relationship with Wheeler, which is graphically simulated in the nude in front of the audience in director Dexter Bullard’s production at Second Stage’s Hayes Theater. Todd Rosenthal’s revolving set, in which scenes spin quickly into place from bedrooms to bars to karaoke clubs, underscores a sense of slickness to this production, which arrives on Broadway largely intact from the original at Steppenwolf Theater.
It may feel easy to dismiss a plot like this as a male fantasy. But Letts, the Pulitzer winning playwright of August: Osage County, is an artful enough writer to make the situation more plausible than it sounds. When Minnie meets Wheeler in a bar, she is pregnant and in an abusive relationship. It eventually becomes explicitly clear what should have been obvious to us from the get-go (mild spoiler alert): This is not true love, or even attraction; she needs a place to stay.
While it might be a little harder to understand what draws Jules to him, she is not just a prop, as is typical in male-centric sex comedies. She is an appealing, complicated character (made all the more so by the actress portraying her) who is capable of expressing her own needs, and who ultimately asserts herself.
Wheeler is sometimes an object of ridicule (such as when he dresses hip to be with Minnie; kudos to costume designer Laura Bauer.) He is sometimes a perpetrator of cruelty. He humiliates as often as he is humiliated. But he eventually gets a brutal comeuppance – several, actually. And there is a hint that he has learned a lesson from them, based on the last couple of scenes involving his platonic friendship with Anita (Caroline Neff), who works in the camera repair shop with him. It is just a suggestion, a faint promise, of redemption for the character, but it also helps redeem Linda Vista.
Linda Vista is on stage at the Hayes Theater (240 W 44th Street, New York, NY 10025) through November 10, 2019. Tickets and details
Linda Vista. Written 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, featuring Ian Barford, Sally Murphy, Caroline Neff, Chantal Thuy, Jim True-Frost, Cora Vander Broek and Troy West. Reviewed from an early preview by Jonathan Mandell