The title of this engaging dark comedy by Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County,” “Superior Donuts”), “Linda Vista,” refers to the San Diego community in which protagonist Wheeler (Ian Barford), an irascible 50-year-old white guy whose marriage has collapsed, seeks a new start. It translates as “pretty view,” which if intended as a reference to Wheeler is unquestionably ironic, since he is something of an emotional wrecking ball. Anyone nearby suffers collateral damage. But his misanthropy, expressed through quality doses of Letts’ entertainingly acidic humor, is accompanied by a surplus of self-deprecation and an occasional, if often self-serving, fit of kindness. In this world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, he is generally unpleasant but not invulnerable — one character refers to him as a turtle who doesn’t realize he has lost his shell — and despite his perpetual and deserved misery, he makes surprisingly decent company for a well-paced, nearly three-hour show.
The plot focuses on Wheeler’s budding relationships with two very different women. First we meet his new neighbor Minnie (Kahyun Kim), a 20-year-old woman of Vietnamese descent with a rockabilly vibe, a millennial’s typical disdain for the middle-aged, and an abusive boyfriend. She contrasts sharply with the woman whom Wheeler’s old college friends Paul (Tim Hopper) and Margaret (Sally Murphy) think is perfect for him, and set him up with: Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach whose fundamental sincerity and emotional bravery is represented early by her singing a karaoke version of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.”
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It isn’t particularly difficult to predict how Wheeler will manage to make the most self-destructive possible choices. As he explains to his work colleague Anita (Caroline Neff), who is smart enough not to date Wheeler, that nearly every personal anecdote he tells ends with the phrase, “…and he was humiliated.”
The tone tilts more towards the painfully melancholy than the comically chaotic, although the edgy wit of Letts’ dialogue keeps it constantly stimulating. The play has more in common with “Superior Donuts” and “Man from Nebraska,” two prior Letts plays about middle-aged men undergoing internal and external transitions, than with the batten-the-hatches familial combat of “August: Osage County.” Most importantly, in a performance filled with detailed contradictions as Wheeler is pulled between his impulses and his desire to behave, Barford (who played the father in Broadway’s “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) captures a series of wonderful moments, from the acerbic one-liners at contemporary society (on the culinary trend of foam he rants: “Does someone in the kitchen have rabies?”) to moments of humorous restraint, such as biting his tongue when Wheeler learns that Jules earned a masters degree in Happiness.
The play flares up most when characters challenge Wheeler, who doesn’t so much seek approval or submission — which he gets from his Paul — as he’s looking for a worthy combatant. But none of the characters are quite given enough leeway to emerge as more than semi-foils in Wheeler’s personal drama; if they were, it would add further depth to the play.
Unusually for a Steppenwolf production of a Letts play, it’s possible to imagine a production that aces this milieu better than this one. The unit set from the reliable Todd Rosenthal is mostly nondescript. The stage rotates somewhat awkwardly in the middle of scenes, mostly between the living room and bedroom of Wheeler’s new apartment, where we see a couple of extended nude sex scenes. A mural above the set places the play in southern California, although not too specifically: sunny skies, palm trees, a spread-out urban landscape. Given the realism of Wheeler’s work (an old-fashioned camera shop) and home settings, the lack of any detail in other pivotal sequences (in a karaoke bar and an outdoor picnic) feels noticeable.
Future productions — and it is easy to imagine this smart and lively play making regional rounds — could benefit by focusing on providing Wheeler with a bit more contrast. The view could indeed be prettier, and thus even more directly in contrast with its anti-hero’s world view.