Now being presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Dexter Bullard who also helmed the world premiere Steppenwolf production, LINDA VISTA by award-winning playwright Tracy Letts features actor Ian Barford as its anti-hero protagonist, Wheeler, a 50-year-old man who is first seen carrying boxes into his new apartment, a big step up from the cot in his ex-wife’s garage. And even though his job as a camera repairman is mundane at best and the best years of his life appear to be behind him, Wheeler seems to hope this new move will open up new possibilities for love, sex and maybe a taste of redemption. But is he really ready to face the necessary self-examination to reconcile the man he has become with the man he wants to be?
Letts’ very contemporary and biting social commentary on the immaturity of men when it comes to dealing with women will no doubt upset many in the audience when it becomes apparent Wheeler will never be ready to grow up. After all, it seems the older he gets, the younger he wants to become even when his body won’t go along with the idea. It’s comically unsettling and all too real when it comes to the contemporary dating scene. And although he is often not very likable, I have to admit I laughed a lot at his foolishness and loved all the Steely Dan music, even though it was blasted way too loud at times.
Before I go on any further, I must alert you that there is quite a bit of full-frontal nudity during sexual encounters between Wheeler and the two women with whom he becomes involved, both of them just as needy and co-dependent as he is. First introduced to Life Coach Jules (Cora Vander Broek) by his married friends Paul (Tim Hopper) and Margaret (Sally Murphy), Wheeler is immediately intrigued after an evening of karaoke and drinking leads to initiating his new apartment to the joy of sex. The two seem to be a good match since both of them are still reeling from recent break-ups, but thankfully her independent nature and training will help her survive his decision to stop seeing her after spending a month of nights together.
You see, someone needs him more: a beautiful, young and outspoken Asian woman he met at a local pub who happens to live in the same building as Wheeler does. So when Minnie (Chantal Thuy) interrupts the new lovers by ringing his doorbell with all her belongings in a laundry basket, confessing to having been abused and probably pregnant by her drugged-out boyfriend, Wheeler offers her his extra bedroom as a safe place to stay until she figures out how to live her life, even though Jules is waiting for him to come back to her in his bedroom! His reasoning becomes apparent later on when we learn about his dysfunctional relationship with his own son, hoping to do better this time as a father to Minnie’s baby.
Of course, Minnie’s real need for his help, both financially as well as emotionally, and her youthful sexual drive and interests, lead Wheeler to dress as a “greaser,” which flabbergasts his friends to the point of questioning his sanity, or perhaps proving that we lose whatever we had in common with old friends as time takes us in different directions. And when Minnie leaves him to track down her baby’s real father, we can only hope Wheeler will turn to his co-worker Anita (Caroline Neff) for attention, and their mutual interest in photography will guide Wheeler to pick up his old camera and develop his long-lost artistic creativity to assist him in taking positive steps in a new direction. Along the way, Letts’ dialog is certainly funny, poignant and painful at the same time, just like real life.
Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design includes a rotating circular centerpiece set broken into three rooms: the living room/kitchen and bedroom in Wheeler’s apartment, and a third room which silently transforms into many different locations when unseen by the audience as the set turns. I credit director Dexter Bullard for his insight in keeping the action constantly moving between scenes, creating the ever-hopeful notion that Wheeler will eventually walk through the right door and come to his senses unless of course co-worker Michael’s (Troy West) comment about committing suicide via cheese grater takes Wheeler in that direction!
LINDA VISTA continues through February 17) Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dark Mondays. Tickets range from $30 – $99, available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center where the Mark Taper Forum is also located at 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.