Ian Barford (Wheeler) and Caroline Neff (Anita) in the world premiere of Linda Vista, written by Tracy Letts and directed by Dexter Bullard, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Ian Barford (Wheeler) and Caroline Neff (Anita) in the world premiere of Linda Vista, written by Tracy Letts and directed by Dexter Bullard, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

For a play that bills itself as an "adult comedy about bad behavior," Tracy Letts' Linda Vista, now receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf, has a few surprises up its sleeve. Like so many adult comedies about bad behavior, this one examines the life of a straight, Gen-X manchild with untapped potential, who hates himself and can't seem to get anything right — except succeed, surreally, in sleeping with a series of good-looking women. But Linda Vista transcends its clichés by giving them undeniable humanity, beginning with its protagonist, Dick Wheeler (Ian Barford).

Far from being the usual emotionally stunted stoic, Wheeler is almost compulsively candid — if he were younger, he'd probably label himself an "oversharer." He delights his younger coworker Anita (the ever-nuanced Caroline Neff) with humiliating stories of his past misdeeds, and he recites the litany of his flaws as if revealing the specials at a fine restaurant.

Some people revel in their own misery, others are simply along for the ride. Riding along with Wheeler are his old college buddies Paul (Tim Hopper) and Margaret (Sally Murphy), a childless couple who have stuck with Wheeler through his career decline, divorce, and current tailspin. Murphy's excellent comedic bite is perfectly suited to Letts' dark humor, and Hopper's pathos shines through his character's spinelessness.

Paul and Margaret's good intentions draw Jules (Cora Vander Broek) into Wheeler's orbit via a blind date that yields, surprisingly, a real connection. Jules is objectively good for Wheeler: a stable, positive person with a seemingly endless capacity for forgiveness. She could even be the one to save our protagonist from himself, if he wasn't so hell-bent on self-flagellation.

The extent to which Wheeler's life has stalled becomes even more apparent when he invites Minnie (Kayhun Kim), his young pregnant neighbor, to move in with him after she gets kicked out of her boyfriend's apartment complex. Minnie is as fond of bad decisions as Wheeler is, and while Kim and Barford never have much romantic chemistry, watching them spar and snipe at each other is great fun.

Like many of Tracy Letts' previous comedic works, Linda Vista finds its funniest moments in breakdowns, despair, and humiliation. Without a weak link, the cast delivers performances that balance blithe, snappy one-liners with an aching sincerity that elevates what could be a raunchy parade of bad behavior into a poignant study of a man in crisis. It helps that even the fleeting relationships seem real from the beginning. Vander Broek and Barford have such a charming connection that watching their inevitable downfall stings. In the camera shop where Wheeler and Anita work for the lascivious Michael (the effective Troy West), Barford and Neff perfectly capture the easy camaraderie between bored retail coworkers who would otherwise never cross paths.

Todd Rosenthal's set, Laura Bauer's costumes, and Marcus Doshi's lighting help make Wheeler's world oppressively drab — a perfect backdrop for him to misbehave. Even a sun-drenched picnic is disrupted by the regular sound of takeoffs and landings from a nearby airport (kudos to sound designer Richard Woodbury). The confident grace of Dexter Bullard's direction is evident from the opening moment: an extended, nearly silent scene between two men that seamlessly transitions into sharp banter.

While its plot works itself out more or less as you'd expect it to, Linda Vista is not a comedy driven by twists and turns. Instead, it seems to unfold naturally, as if every bend in the road is the only way it could have gone.