Tracy Letts in his play “Linda Vista,” a Steppenwolf Production presented by Second Stage in association with Center Theatre Group, writes many funny lines. But humor aside, the work rests on his main character Dick Wheeler, broadly and colorfully portrayed by Ian Barford. At the age of 50, Wheeler castigates himself as an unworthy loser in life. The trouble with the play is that he is right.
Despite the laugh lines he dispenses, his behavior with women renders him obnoxious. He thinks more about himself than the women he beds, with zero regard for their feelings. Rather than hope that he changes, one may look for him to get his comeuppance.
However, the playwright knows how to reach for our attention. There are explicit sex scenes with full nudity, one very bizarre encounter in which the woman, after riding atop Wheeler and wanting him to achieve orgasm, moves away in the bed and wants to pleasure herself and not even let Wheeler touch her.
We first see Wheeler before the play even starts as he and his friend Paul (Jim True-Frost) are walking back and forth brining luggage and assorted boxes into Wheeler’s new digs, an apartment in a neighborhood called Linda Vista in San Diego. Once the play begins, we get to know the guys as they natter about their lives and engage in droll sex talk.
Wheeler has worked as a photographer in Chicago, but now only repairs cameras in a local shop. He is in the midst of a protracted divorce, and has no interest in seeing his teenage son, or his ex to be. He doesn’t consider himself worthy of or ready for a serious relationship.
Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) arrange for Wheeler to meet Jules (Cora Vander Broek. She’s a very nice person who doesn’t deserve to be hurt. We see them have sex—the bizarre encounter described above. It turns out that Jules falls for Wheeler, and for a while he thinks she could be the one for him, but how that works out demonstrates the cruelty with which he can behave.
There is also Minnie (Chantal Thuy), whom Wheeler allows to stay in his apartment when she has no place to go. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to know what happens. One more woman in Letts’ set-up is Anita (Caroline Neff), a smart-talking and earthy employee in the store where Wheeler works and with whom he hasn’t yet had sex.
My problem was an increasing feeling of boredom with Wheeler, as well as being repelled by some of his actions. The more Wheeler berates himself, the more I agree with him. At one point when he is reduced to tears and begging, instead of earning pity as a guy in emotional trouble, he is getting what he deserves.
Others may disagree in light of Barford’s outsized performance reflecting his acting skill and in the author’s apparent affection for the character. All of the cast members, including the shop owner, Michael (Troy West), are well-acted. Also Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design stands out, including a revolving set that accommodates rooms in the apartment and other locations, and a colorful picture of the San Diego waterfront extending above for the width of the stage. Dexter Bullard’s direction emphasizes the eroticism in the sex scenes, effectively highlights the confrontations and also achieves good timing for the laugh lines.
But instead of Wheeler becoming a tragic figure, he emerges as a hapless louse with little hope for his redemption in the future, even though Letts makes it look at the end as if there might be happier days ahead. At the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-246-4422. Reviewed October 17, 2019.