The plays of Tracy Letts can be broadly divided into two types: Those with men behaving appallingly and those with women behaving abominably. In “August: Osage County,” his Pulitzer Prize winner, there was a bit of both, but the most frightening character by far was the embittered, pill-addicted matriarch Violet Weston, whose baleful remarks were intended to kneecap her family members.
“Linda Vista,” which opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum in a sensationally acted Steppenwolf Theatre production directed by Dexter Bullard, is a play about a 50-year-old dude in the midst of a midlife crisis. In the process of getting divorced, this cocky contrarian with a hangdog demeanor just moved into an apartment in the San Diego community of Linda Vista. The name translates into “beautiful view,” but it’s not easy for Wheeler (a perfectly cast Ian Barford) to change his mordant outlook.
He’s not the kind of sociopath found in “Killer Joe” or “Bug,” the floridly violent, bracingly theatrical plays that launched the writing career of a first-rate actor. Wheeler doesn’t leave a bloody trail. The destruction he wreaks is subtler. He disappoints those who love him, casually betraying their trust, then gaslighting them into thinking it’s all their fault.
But he’s such a shrewd operator that he manages to cover up these tracks by painting himself as one of life’s irredeemable losers. He’s thrown in the towel — on his career (he now works as a camera repairman after starting out as a newspaper photographer), on his family (he’s playing hardball over alimony and child support) and on the dumbed-down culture around him.
What he hasn’t given up on is women. If there’s a younger female in his vicinity, chances are he’ll be hitting on her in his unassuming (how dare you think I’m trying to pick you up) way. A curious combination of arrogance and self-deprecation, Wheeler attempts to charm with his anti-charm. “I’ve got middle-aged desperation written all over me,” he tells Anita (Caroline Neff), a work colleague, whose T-shirts have Michael (Troy West), the prurient boss of the camera shop, grossly enthralled.
Wheeler defines himself by his antipathies. His long list of dislikes (which includes Elvis, Queen and Coldplay, American movies made after 1984 and any restaurant that serves foam) is only getting longer. One of his go-to lines is that all his disastrous relationships end the same way: “And he was humiliated.” Which is only half the truth. He humiliates as reliably as he is humiliated.
We’ve met this type before in the novels of John Updike and Saul Bellow and, more recently, on cable and streaming television — the masculine magnet who turns out to be a black hole. Wheeler comes across as a character in search of his own Showtime series.
“Linda Vista” doesn’t always seem convinced that it wants to be a play. Letts clearly appreciates the freedom of theater to graphically tackle subjects, such as middle-aged sex, that might make TV producers squirm. But many of the scenes, italicized with pop music, play like a dark rom-com.
The episodic nature of this nearly three-hour work turns playgoing into binge-watching. The dramatic writing has a kinetic kick. Letts’ dialogue is potently funny and the psychological dynamics are often riveting in their accuracy. But the overall structure is saggy. The compulsive wit, as a consequence, can feel laborious in places.
The plot, which revolves around Wheeler’s relationships with two vastly different women, moves in fits and starts. Scenes are closely, sometimes sluggishly, observed. And then there are the sudden television leaps.
Worried that Wheeler is trapped in a depressive Steely Dan song, Paul (Tim Hopper, an actor so good he should be patented) and his wife, Margaret (Sally Murphy), San Diego friends from their Midwestern college days, play matchmaker. They introduce Wheeler to Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach with a master’s degree in happiness (a zingy Letts detail) and an apologetic manner that suggests a long history of unhappiness.
After an overlong scene in a karaoke bar — must every modern comedy have a karaoke scene? — the seemingly mismatched pair wind up at Wheeler’s apartment. The sex that follows, as fumbling as it is feverish, daringly depicts the vagaries of midlife passion. Miscues lead to an argument, which leads to a reconciliation. Before you know it, Wheeler and Jules are about to celebrate their first-month anniversary as a couple.
But another woman, much younger, less stable and far less appropriate, enters the picture. Minnie (Chantal Thuy), a 26-year-old Vietnamese American rockabilly neighbor who’s pregnant and in an abusive relationship, seeks refugee in Wheeler’s apartment. A tough girl with a chip on her shoulder even more pronounced than Wheeler’s, she makes herself right at home, eating the last slice of pizza while Wheeler screens Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” in a vain effort at cultivating Jules’ and Minnie’s cinematic taste.
The equilibrium of this trio doesn’t last long. No point in giving away what happens, except to say that costume designer Laura Bauer gets one of the best laughs when revealing through clothing the ludicrous effect Minnie has on Wheeler.
The revolving set by Todd Rosenthal accommodates the screenwriting flexibility Letts insists on. Wheeler’s bachelor apartment is appropriately generic. No one would confuse the Linda Vista view that dominates the scene with paradise. Some of the other locales (a restaurant bar, a picnic area) are awkwardly squeezed in.
Letts excels at character, dialogue and psychology — the fundamentals of dramatic construction. I don’t want to undersell the world he bodies forth in “Linda Vista.” There’s a restaurant scene between Wheeler and Jules that is as incisive as any similarly incendiary moment between Tony and Carmela on “The Sopranos” — high praise indeed.
Wheeler’s mix of shrewdness and narcissistic obliviousness is nailed as precisely as Paul’s sideman steadiness. (Barford and Hopper are unerringly authentic.) The female characters aren’t always given enough time to come into focus. (Murphy’s Margaret is especially fuzzy.)
But Vander Broek honors Jules’ strength along with her vulnerability. Thuy hints at the hurt Minnie inflicts on herself when hurting others. And Neff lends a persevering dignity to Anita, who stoically withstands the sexism and harassment of everyday life.
On the grand scale, however, Wheeler’s journey isn’t all that revelatory. The behavioral snapshots are more interesting than the character’s arc. Closure, when it finally arrives, has the tidy feeling of a self-satisfied short story.
Letts is writing for one of the best acting companies in America. This Steppenwolf ensemble infuses every moment with full-blooded theatricality. But I wish he’d think harder about what separates the stage from the other mediums he’s found so much success in as a world-class writer and actor.
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Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Feb. 17 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $30-$99 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org