Linda Vista Has an Ugly View of the Pursuit of Happiness
Tracy Letts writes a midlife crisis for Broadway.
The first 90 minutes of Linda Vista feel like a sitcom pilot. Playwright Tracy Letts throws out a laugh line every 10 to 20 seconds, and the audience gleefully obliges, relieved to participate in the familiar call-and-response of prime-time comedy. The chief joker is Wheeler, a 50-year-old undergoing a protracted divorce. He has just moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Linda Vista neighborhood of San Diego: "Anything's an improvement over the cot in my wife's garage," he quips.
Ian Barford plays this role with Jim Belushi panache: He's like a stand-up comedian who has just gotten a star vehicle slated for Mondays at 9pm and cannot suppress a smile as he delivers his amusing lines. The material about Donald Trump and his "stupid" voters really get the Broadway audience rolling: "The problem with these racist cocksuckers isn't that they're doing too much OxyContin, it's that they need a whole lot more." [Riotous laughter]
Such unapologetic mirth is uncommon in a new Broadway play, especially one that is part of a not-for-profit season (Linda Vista is being produced by Second Stage Theater at the Hayes). This is a comedy about a middle-aged straight white man who cannot stop talking, and that feels practically punk-rock in our present climate, in which theaters fall over one another to prove their diversity. But Letts (most famous for his Tony- and Pulitzer-winning drama August: Osage County) isn't content to provide theatrical comfort food. Over the course of two hours and 40 minutes, he lulls us into a false sense of security while cleverly setting a trap to ensnare us with our reactions to a genre we all know too well.
Linda Vista isn't just masquerading as a sitcom, but a rom-com: those ubiquitous films in which a young, beautiful woman inexplicably falls for a neurotic, often much older man (think 1997's As Good as It Gets). At the urging of his married friends, Paul (Jim True-Frost) and Margaret (Sally Murphy), he agrees to go on a double date with their friend Jules (Cora Vander Broek). He doesn't think they have anything in common, but they sleep together anyway (intimacy consultant Claire Warden has consulted her way to the most hilariously graphic sex scene I've ever witnessed in a Broadway theater). That one-night stand promises to blossom into a second shot at love, but then a troubled young woman named Minnie (Chantal Thuy) arrives at Wheeler's door, and the wheels in his head start turning.
When the conservative Catholics of Heroes of the Fourth Turning talk about liberal Americans who alternate between "self-satisfied digital activism and committing vile acts of self-gratification," it seems likely they have someone like Wheeler in mind. His anti-Trump stridency feels like window-dressing on the same old "locker-room talk" our president enjoys (the first scene features an extended discussion of Ali MacGraw's nymphomania — and it just gets more cringeworthy from there). Rejecting contemporary films and music, Wheeler clings to myths about his outsider's taste; but he is still a participant in the banal marketplace of dating, in which we shop around for partners that will complement our style, serving the same function as a flashy handbag or luxury vehicle. This is consumer capitalism applied to human relationships and it derives from the "pursuit of happiness" that we assume is our God-given right as Americans.
"Noooooooo," a woman wailed loudly from the mezzanine at the performance I attended as Wheeler cruelly dumped one of the women (I won't say which one). Was it because she honestly thought they would make a good match? Or are we just so familiar with this kind of story that we know when it goes off the rails? Surely we'll get our happy ending, right?
Letts and director Dexter Bullard play with our expectations through a slow and deliberate build-up, sustained by top-notch performances, and not much hindered by lackluster design.
First, the latter: Todd Rosenthal's rotating set is a half-choice, with some scenes on the turntable, but way too many pushed to the vague space downstage. Marcus Doshi's lighting instills a sense of time, and a tacky cyclorama lets us know that we're in San Diego. Laura Bauer outfits the cast in understated contemporary costumes. Only late in the second act does Wheeler go full-on midlife crisis with an ill-fitting leather jacket and porkpie hat. And just to hammer home that 50-and-deseprate vibe, sound designer Richard Woodbury underscores the scene transitions with Steely Dan. It's expected, but never revelatory.
The performances are another matter: Vander Broek is crushingly vulnerable as Jules. True-Frost and Murphy have seasoned chemistry as the old married couple. Caroline Neff and Troy West make memorable appearances as Wheeler's coworkers in a small camera shop, their workplace banter straddling the line between a romp and a liability.
"I'm too old to pretend to be something I'm not," Wheeler warns in the first scene, "and a lot of the things I am are not attractive." Ian Barford takes this line seriously in his fascinating, unexpectedly chilling performance. Wheeler is aggressively unlikable — but he makes us laugh!
Minnie also lays her card on the table: "I promise…I'll hurt you," says Thuy in a deadpan that is both serious and seductive. A lot of the play is people telling other people exactly who they are, and those other people tragically choosing not to believe them. Linda Vista makes a strong argument that we cannot see the beautiful view when we're too preoccupied with trying to take the best selfie in front of it.