Tracy Letts is a magician, or better yet a griot, “a repository of oral tradition”. The stories he tells have the feeling of being told before. They seem like stories we have already heard – which does not diminish the telling in any way.
In the case of Second Stage Theater's Broadway premiere of Linda Vista at The Hayes Theater, the telling is a complicated one. Sometimes sad, sometimes like a slow car crash, sometimes hilarious. Wheeler (Ian Barford) is recently separated from his wife and even more recently moved out of her garage where he slept on a cot. While he will not publicly admit to being responsible for anything having to do with the separation, he has a boatload of opinions about anything and everything to dole out to anyone who will listen. How we should be able to trade in old friends for new ones – they are not family after all. How Trump supporters are not to be tolerated. Why Ali McGraw never had a perm. You know, the important stuff.
His stock in trade is minutiae, and he has a never-ending supply to use as defence moves. When those run out, he is left with his crappy self who is pretty certain he has a special bull’s eye on his very own back. If anyone tries to tell him otherwise, woe unto them.
Why we stick with him in this very long play that could use a good trim (the play was originally produced at Steppenwolf Theatre in 2017 so a trim is not likely) because of the intertwined talents here. Everything begins with the word of course. Letts has created a character who has so many layers he doesn’t even see them anymore. As Wheeler, Barford manages to pull off a guy who is sensitive and self-referential at the same time. When Wheeler gets sucked into a situation it feels like quicksand. He is overcome and overwhelmed, and it does not occur to him that there are other people in the lifeboat. When he does notice other people, he prefers to keep them in their respective corners. And when he finds a new person he likes better, he will waste no time jettisoning anyone from his life. He is a good guy who makes such stupid choices that even the men in the audience groan.
Letts has cherry picked the other characters in this play to bring out Wheeler’s shades of, well, life. His friend Paul (Jim True-Frost) is married to Margaret (Sally Murphy) and assures Wheeler that marriage is great, and he loves his wife, but it is not all THAT great. Margaret seems put on earth to get in Wheeler’s face because she has determined that he needs whatever tough love is available on account of him not taking care of himself. One love interest, Jules (Cora Vander Broek) is smart, open-hearted and loving – all the things that Wheeler wishes he were. His other love interest Minnie (Chantal Thuy) is ice cold and opportunistic – and Wheeler would like to be that as well. His co-workers Michael (Troy West) and Anita (Caroline Neff) appear to have wandered out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in both positive and negative ways.
All the world is a petri dish and old Wheeler is trying to live in it without catching a virus. He cannot, of course.
Dexter Bullard’s direction is spot on and only gets bogged down when the script wanders off the reservation. The character of Minnie lacks credulity and feels like a pop-up store in Times Square. All flash and no substance. And predictable. This throws the course Wheeler is following way off point. An odd choice when all else is grounded in life’s mundane minutia that glows under Letts’ examination.
The cast – all unknown to this writer – is superb. Each has moments to shine and moments to support, and they do this without a hitch. There is a great give and take here. The universe contracts and expands. Wheeler is tossed from pillar to post until he finally washes up on a new shore. Not a predictable Happy shore – just a dry spot where he can rest long enough to gather his wits and choose the next path.
If given the choice most of us would follow him.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"The everyday poison known as toxic masculinity becomes dangerously easy to swallow in Linda Vista, Tracy Letts’s inspired, ruthless take on the classic midlife-crisis comedy. In the sunny opening scenes of this very funny, equally unsettling Steppenwolf Theater production — which opened on Thursday at the Hayes Theater — you’ll probably feel like cozying up to that sheepish, disheveled big guy who rules the stage with his outspoken wit."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Although it sags a bit in places, it coheres in the end, and Barford and Letts give Wheeler precisely the right amount of rot. The play sees right through this guy, and the view behind him isn’t pretty."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Linda Vista turns out to be an engaging, if flawed, portrait of a modern day everyman who's incredibly smart on the one hand while behaving so inexplicably dumb on the other. The bones of this play are all there, but like the 50-year-old Wheeler, the body could use some tightening."
Roma Torre for NY1
"After the sprawling narrative of Mary Page Marlowe, Tracy Letts returns to the simple sitcom roots of Superior Donuts with his new play, Linda Vista, which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Hayes Theater after a run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf. Well, Letts returns to TV land for the first act at least. The second act of Linda Vista is uncharted territory for the playwright, who gives us not one but four scenes where the funny, charming and very frustrated hero of the first act turns into a total creep and gets his comeuppance big time."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"Tracy Letts, the profusely gifted playwright who also happens to be a brilliant actor, or vice versa, is working in an elevated sitcom mode as well as a revealing personal vein in Linda Vista. The self-inflicted woes of a middle-aged white man, victim of his own inebriating cocktail of testosterone and narcissism, might seem a tone-deaf subject for character study in our current moment of masculinity vivisected and reconstructed. But don't let the slick barrage of one-liners deceive you into thinking there's no room here for bruising self-examination and perhaps even tentative growth."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter