×

Chicago Theater Review: Tracy Letts’ ‘Linda Vista’

With:
Ian Barford, Tim Hopper, Kahyun Kim, Sally Murphy, Caroline Neff, Cora Vander Broek, Troy West.

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.”

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.

Chicago Theater Review: Tracy Letts' 'Linda Vista'

Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago; 510 seats; $94 top. Opened April 9, reviewed April 16, 2017; runs through May 21.  Running time:  2 HOURS, 45 MINS.

Production: A Steppenwolf Theater Company production of a play in two acts by Tracy Letts.

Creative: Directed by Dexter Bullard.  Set, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Laura Bauer; lighting, Marcus Doshi; sound, Richard Woodbury; stage manager, Christine D. Freeburg.

Cast: Ian Barford, Tim Hopper, Kahyun Kim, Sally Murphy, Caroline Neff, Cora Vander Broek, Troy West.

More Legit

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

  • Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac to Star in Anton Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' Adaptation

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac are taking on an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” for New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. The company announced on Tuesday that they will feature two final performances to round out the 2019 to 2020 season, including the Chekhov play. “Three Sisters” will be directed by Tony award-winning Sam [...]

  • montreal just for laughs Comedy Festival

    Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival Is the 'Coachella of Comedy'

    Every summer, Montreal becomes the epicenter of the comedy world as the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival takes over the Canadian city. Now in its 37th year, the mindboggling scale of the festival is there in the numbers: more than 1,600 artists from across the globe (speaking English, French and other languages) performing 250 shows [...]

  • The dark Manhatten skyline, seen from

    StubHub Refunds $500,000 to Customers Shut Out by New York Blackout

    Saturday’s blackout in New York had an outsized effect on the city’s nightlife, with Madison Square Garden and the entire Broadway district seeing multiple shows cancelled due to the the power outage. As a result, StubHub has refunded more than $500,000 worth of tickets for cancelled events. According to a statement from the company, the StubHub [...]

  • Warner Music Group Logo

    Warner Music Acquires Musical Theater Indie First Night Records

    Warner Music Group has acquired First Night Record, an independent record label for West End and Broadway musical theatre cast recordings. The company will be overseen by WMG’s Arts Music Division, led by President Kevin Gore. First Night co-founder John Craig will join the Arts Music team under a multi-year consulting agreement to identify and record musical theatre productions in [...]

  • Broadway

    Broadway Back In Biz After Power Outage Ends

    The bright lights of Broadway were back on Sunday morning as midtown Manhattan recovered from a power outage that lasted nearly seven hours in some areas. Social media was full of examples of how New Yorkers rose to the occasion after the power went out on a hot Saturday night shortly before 7 p.m. ET. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content