Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through May 21
By ANNE SPISELMAN
How much you’ll like or dislike the world premiere of Tracy Letts’ “Linda Vista” at Steppenwolf Theatre will depend, at least in part, on whether or not you can stand the main character.
Wheeler, as everybody calls him, is far from easy to like. He’s irascible, overbearingly opinionated, convinced he’s smarter than everyone else and, in Ian Barford’s terrific performance, a loud, slovenly, vulgar curmudgeon you feel like to have to walk on eggshells around to keep him from exploding with rage at you. His sense of entitlement as a straight white man is so ingrained, he’s completely self-absorbed without really realizing it and inclined to go off on tangents and indulge in diatribes about trivia oblivious to the opinions and feelings of those around him.
He’s also 50 and in a state of crisis. He’s been going through a messy divorce for two years, and as the play begins, he’s moving from a cot in the garage of what is now his wife’s house into a sparsely furnished apartment in the Linda Vista complex in a San Diego neighborhood that’s mostly Vietnamese and Latino. He has a thirteen-year-old son named Gabriel, but every time someone brings him or their relationship up, he yells at them to mind their own business. A displaced Chicagoan who once was a photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times, he now repairs cameras in a shop owned by a creepy guy named Michael (Troy West) and hasn’t taken a photo in almost fifteen years.
Like many men who realize they’re aging, Wheeler is preoccupied with sex and women. In the opening scene, he and his long-time married friend, Paul (Tim Hopper), mix “locker room talk” with observations about politics, life, and all that. Much of the dialogue throughout the evening—including set pieces about subjects ranging from specific films to the pointlessness of giving advice–is very funny, which is one of the reasons that “Linda Vista” is entertaining, even though it clocks in at nearly three hours.
A downside is that the show, directed by Dexter Bullard, feels like a sitcom in the making—only with nudity and language you won’t hear on television, at least not in America. The rhythms of the style are obvious; you can almost hear the beat for an audience laugh after each joke.
The plot, too, suffers from sitcom-itis, though the extent to which Wheeler manages to screw up arguably goes beyond that. While he has a quiet thing for Anita (Caroline Neff), the girl who works in the camera shop, the blind date Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), Wheeler’s one-time girlfriend, set him up on with Jules (Cora Vander Broek) turns into an affair, despite his initial antipathy and scorn for her profession of life coach. Hurt in a previous relationship, she falls deeply in love with him, seeing honesty, loneliness, and vulnerability in his off-putting behavior. She’s ultra supportive and encourages him to go back to photography, which doesn’t exactly sit well.
Wheeler has a dilemma after Minnie (Kahyun Kim), a “rockabilly” millennial Vietnamese girl with red-streaked hair who lives in the same complex, shows up at his door late one night. She’s pregnant, and her abusive druggie boyfriend has skipped town; his brother has kicked her out of their apartment, and she has no place to go. Wheeler takes her in, one of the indications that he has a kinder side.
To Letts’ and Barford’s credit, we see many facets of Wheeler’s complicated personality and can mostly understand why he’s doing what he does even when it is despicable. The upshot is that he’s put in the position of choosing between Jules, who is compatible and closer to his age but makes him feel smothered, and Minnie, who’s in her twenties and gives him the illusion of being rejuvenated and reliving his youth or the youth he never really had. He ends up hurting one of them terribly, only to be devastated by the other. It does not end well, but this is a comedy, so life goes on.
One of the play’s quirks is that the most serious issues are dealt with indirectly and incompletely. Wheeler’s feelings about his troubled son, which date back to the boy’s birth, are at the root of his unhappiness. They basically ruined his marriage and rendered him incapable of helping, yet we hear about them only obliquely. I suspect they reflect a problem many men have had that’s rarely explored on stage and maybe should be more overtly.
In any case, I simultaneously enjoyed “Linda Vista” and found the siticom-iness annoying. The acting is first rate, as usually is the case at Steppenwolf, and so is the functional design highlighted by Todd Rosenthal’s turntable scenic design of a generic apartment. I just wish the play didn’t come across as quite so self-consciously packaged and that Wheeler was less of a jerk so I cared about him more.