In the the sharpest, most hilarious and most quintessentially Lettsian scene in Tracy Letts’ “Linda Vista” — now receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre — the playwright’s unapologetic antihero, Wheeler (Ian Barford), a self-loathing, underemployed, still handsome 50-year-old misanthrope in the process of finalizing a messy divorce, asks for advice from Paul (Tim Hopper), who might be his only friend in the world. Paul, too, is a middle-aged man, but more conventionally stable, and resigned to his long, childless marriage, a union Stephen Sondheim would describe as a “sorry/grateful” relationship.
‘LINDA VISTA’ Recommended When: Through May 21 Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Tickets: $20 – $94 Info: (312) 335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org Run time: 2 hours and 50 minutes with one intermission
If nothing else, Paul has his pulse on certain essential laws of human nature. But before hearing them, it is best to understand the conundrum faced by Wheeler, a man who takes a certain perverse pleasure in being humiliated. In a nutshell: After fleeing the humiliation of living in the garage of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s San Diego home, and sensing the disgust of his troubled 13-year-old son, Wheeler has moved into a furnished apartment in a housing complex called Linda Vista. And as “luck” would have it, before a month or so has passed, he must make a life-altering choice about the two women he never expected would enter his life.
Should he pursue things with his newfound fountain-of-reckless-youth, Minnie (Kahyun Kim, new to Chicago, but leaving quite an indelible first impression), an equally self-destructive and penniless 20-year-old Vietnamese-American “rockabilly” girl who has taken refuge in his apartment after fleeing her abusive boyfriend (by whom she is pregnant). After all, they have just had great, orgasmic, up-against-the-wall sex, and it’s no small turn-on that she has very clearly promised to destroy him. Or should he do the more rational thing, and continue on in his uneasy but more adult relationship with Jules (a beautifully shaped performance by the excellent Cora Vander Broek), an attractive, attentive woman who has found success as a life coach (a concept that is anathema to Wheeler), even though her clear desire to get him back on track to a productive life is not what he has in mind?
Hopper’s response (and the actor, fresh from playing Uncle Vanya at the Goodman, absolutely soars on Letts’ droll locutions here) takes the form of a sparkling philosophical riposte that essentially sums things up in this way: The only thing that really matters in such cases is not what you should do, but what you are going to do. And you are going to do what you are going to do, no matter what. So, forget about paying the price for it all on your deathbed, because we’re all going to be on our deathbeds sooner or later anyway, and it’s only what you do with the rest of your life that matters.
Yes, “Linda Vista” is a male midlife crisis tragicomedy of epic proportions, with Barford capturing a perfect balance of the self-flagellating and the narcissistic, and displaying a body quite fit enough to carry off a couple of nude scenes. (Designer Todd Rosenthal’s set, a radical about-face from his recent masterwork for “Uncle Vanya,” easily evokes the bland facelessness of an apartment about a generation out of date.)
The play also takes a somewhat too self-congratulatory look at midlife female liberation, as well as a suggestion of the various forms of self-destructive behavior engaged in by women in their 20s. At its most superficial (and this is during the play’s opening scenes), it has the quality of a political satire in the guise of a dyspeptic TV sitcom, with unexceptionable barbs about a certain sitting president, politicians who deny Darwinism, climate change and all the rest, and the execrable state of mass entertainment since the glory days of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. It’s only when it finally settles into the real problems of the characters at hand — and Letts puts on his mantle as something of a latter-day Edward Albee, tapping into both the cruelty and pain of human relationships — that the play really pops.
And when it finally does, there is no stopping it as Jules’ terror of being hurt is destined to become a self-fulfilling prophecy (and then something more); as Minnie’s hard-edged desperation becomes a weapon of destruction; as Paul’s self-suppression endures, and as the parenting terror of his wife, Margaret (Sally Murphy, a variation on Albee’s Honey in “Virginia Woolf”), takes on another dimension.
As for Wheeler, who 13 years earlier pretty much sealed his fate by walking away from his job as a staff photographer for (yes) the Chicago Sun-Times — suffering from doubts about his talent, and using his wife’s wish to be near her family in California as an excuse to run — he is “rewarded” with all the humiliation he has self-generated, and then some. And this theme is neatly complemented by a subplot that unspools in the camera shop where he works as a repairman for his aging boss, Michael (played with droll yet chilling creepiness by Troy West). Michael lives with his mother and engages in porno fantasies designed to unhinge his sexy young assistant, Anita (an ideally subtle turn by Caroline Neff). But she is a college dropout with a worldly-wise attitude who just might possess the stuff of a survivor.
Dexter Bullard (who directed Letts’ early work, “Bug,” at A Red Orchid here in 2001, and then Off Broadway in 2004) has cast “Linda Vista” to perfection, and together, he and his actors tap into the often hidden vulnerability of Letts’ characters that is so crucial to making this play work.