Tracy Letts’s Linda Vista is lovely, funny, and sad, and I’m dreading the day when, like his earlier Superior Donuts, it becomes a sitcom. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I wouldn’t watch it, nor does it mean it’d be a wholly terrible idea. Unfolding in episodic fashion across a number of mundane settings, Linda Vista follows the entanglements of the recently-single Dick Wheeler (Ian Barford), an eloquently embittered, constantly self-deprecating 50-year-old who has just left a cot in his estranged wife’s garage and moved into a San Diego apartment complex.
Wheeler’s contempt for the world around him makes for a lot of audience-friendly zingers: “The problem with these racist cocksuckers isn’t that they’re doing too much OxyContin, it’s that they need to do a whole lot more,” he says of Trump voters in the play’s opening scene, which gets its share of applause. But his contempt for others is matched by his contempt for himself. He likes to joke that tales from his love life usually end with the words “And he was humiliated.” He’s miserable, but entertainingly so; his attitude is a combination of ironic detachment and emotional predictability that you could easily imagine being applied to all sorts of real-world situations, like an aging hipster’s guide to surviving a bad life.
Much of Linda Vista depicts Wheeler’s attempts to restart his love life. He’s not outwardly eager for companionship (“I’m too old to pretend to be something I’m not and a lot of the things I am are not attractive,” he grumbles), but he’s clearly still prowling in his low-key, why-would-anyone-ever-date-me way. He asks out Anita (Caroline Neff), with whom he works at a camera store, but he’s denied in a scene of disarming honesty. (“I think we take turns blowing our lives up and right now it’s your turn,” she tells him.”) At a bar, he chats up Minnie (Chantal Thuy), a beautiful twentysomething Vietnamese-American rockabilly enthusiast, even though much of their conversation winds up being about how they’re not going to go out. His married friends Paul (Jim True-Frost) and Margaret (Sally Murphy), seemingly against their better judgment, set him up with Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a vivacious life coach with a graduate degree in “happiness,” and, after he spends most of their karaoke double-date complaining about how he hates everything, the two find themselves naked in bed together.
For all its easygoing pace and humor, Linda Vista goes to some truly dark places. The challenge here is to show how Wheeler’s corrosive charm grows on people, how he wears them down with his languid, often entertaining negativity, while also revealing the toxicity and sense of entitlement that runs beneath his persona. In the end, he’s just another jerk who expects the world to come to him, and leaves devastation in his wake. But that also makes him relatable; we’ve all known our share of Wheelers, and most of us have probably been some variation of him at various points in our lives.
Letts captures the indulgent, self-destructive appeal of completely checking out, of driving yourself down so far into the ground that even a kind word seems like a mocking offense. But he also reveals the inherent phoniness behind it. Wheeler may wallow in his self-loathing, but more often than not, he’s secretly looking for something. A brutal scene where he breaks up with Jules, after she dares to give him a gift that he interprets as encouragement to pursue his aborted photography career, is an apocalypse of self-flagellation (“I’m a son-of-a-bitch, I’m a misanthropic piece of shit, I should be taken out into a field and shot in the back of the head”) – but we also know that he’s leaving her because he’s started hooking up with Minnie. In other words, he is a misanthropic piece of shit, just not in the specific way that he thinks he is.
These aren’t particularly fresh characters or situations, but Dexter Bullard’s staging and the Steppenwolf cast lend them an appealing physicality. A towering shambles, Barford’s Wheeler lumbers and rolls through his scenes like the slow-moving train-wreck that he is. (In my memory of the play, he’s always knocking down things – but I don’t think he actually knocked down anything.) Vander Broek’s Jules, by contrast, is alternately bouncy and hesitant; when she’s not making quick, sudden movements, she’s tensely holding back, like a person wary of getting hurt again but eager to put herself out there. This particular relationship makes for a transfixing dance — particularly during one post-coital argument played out mostly nude, enhancing their awkwardness and vulnerability. It’s these kinds of subtly theatrical touches that make Linda Vista feel like a cohesive emotional experience, and not just a bunch of scenes designed to pass the time.
Linda Vista is at the Helen Hayes Theater.