Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 10, $79-$199
Tracy Letts details the midlife crisis of a fifty-year-old white man recognizing that life and love are passing him by in the darkly comic though ultimately unsatisfying Linda Vista, continuing at the Helen Hayes through November 10. The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (August: Osage County) and Tony-winning actor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) — the only person to earn both of those recognitions — started writing the play four years ago when he turned fifty and has incorporated many elements from his own life into the narrative. Let’s hope that most of what the main character, Dick Wheeler, broadly played by Letts’s onstage doppelganger, Ian Barford of August: Osage County, does to others is fictional.
Wheeler has just turned fifty and is going through a contentious divorce; he is moving into a San Diego apartment complex near the water with the help of his longtime friend Paul (Jim True-Frost). A former photojournalist, Wheeler put his lenses away long ago and has been working at a small camera shop run by Michael (Troy West), a slightly older man who lives with his mother and has never met a misogynist comment that was beneath him. They both have their eyes on Anita (Caroline Neff), a buxom young assistant who puts up with the verbal harassment because she needs the job. Paul and his wife, Margaret (Sally Murphy), set Wheeler up on a blind date with Jules Isch (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach who likes karaoke, and Wheeler is soon falling for her. Meanwhile, Wheeler, who has virtually no contact with his son, is helping take care of Minnie (Chantal Thuy), a pregnant Vietnamese American whose boyfriend skedaddled.
At both work and home, Wheeler starts making questionable decisions that jeopardize his happiness — if he can ever be happy. “Life is mostly disappointing,” he says to Anita. He is dour and cynical, whereas Anita is hopeful, Minnie is carefree, and Jules is forward thinking. “You have to learn to love the place you are,” Jules explains to him. His frame of reference — Ali McGraw, the Crypt Keeper, Mr. Coffee, New Coke — is a thing of the past. He’s a fervent believer in the truth — “I don’t lie,” he tells Paul — but he is living a lie, represented by his giving up documentary photography, which in theory captures reality, something he is ardently avoiding. He’s also a Stanley Kubrick fanatic; it’s no coincidence that Kubrick began his career as a street photographer and documentarian before making extraordinary fiction films. The number of Wheeler’s apartment is even 217, the room number from Stephen King’s The Shining where some bad things happen involving sex and aging. (The room number was changed to 237 for the Kubrick film.)
Unevenly directed by Dexter Bullard (Grace, Lady), Linda Vista features a terrific revolving set by Todd Rosenthal that rotates from apartment to camera store to bar or restaurant, evoking the circular nature of Wheeler’s life, going around and around but making no real progress. Barford (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Letts’s The Minutes) is a natural for the role; he sounds and moves like Letts, who has appeared in such television shows and movies as Little Women, Homeland, Lady Bird, and The Sinner. But Letts, whose other plays include the wonderful Mary Page Marlowe and Man from Nebraska, has created a character so unlikable that you won’t want to spend much time with him — in this case, more than two and a half hours; in fact, all of the men have contemptible qualities, while the women are much smarter but still make implausible choices. Parenting is a key theme of the play; it’s probably best that several of these characters do not procreate. Barford and Vander Broek (All My Sons; Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976) have steamy chemistry during their courtship, but it is only a brief respite from Wheeler’s annoying, self-destructive tendencies, and the same goes for the extremely graphic sex scenes. Letts has included snippets of Steely Dan songs throughout; in “Aja,” Donald Fagen sings, “Up on the hill / people never stare / They just don’t care.” At the end of Linda Vista, the audience cares — but judges, as well. And the verdict is not a favorable one.