Theater Review: LINDA VISTA (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on January 17, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


The title of Tracy Letts’ play Linda Vista, Steppenwolf Theatre’s production now at the Mark Taper Forum, translates as “Beautiful View.” In a literal sense, it refers to a San Diego apartment complex with a tiny slice of ocean visible (if you know where to look). It is also ironic. Nothing here looks or feels beautiful. Some of the characters find beauty and joy in unexpected places, but the main character, Wheeler, a former photo journalist in his fifties, is tortured by his inability to hold onto anything beautiful in his own life. For 17 years he has been experiencing what used to be called a midlife crisis. Now it’s just life: a series of humiliations, disappointments, and losses.

The comedy is dark. Wheeler is often sarcastic and bitter, yet rarely, if ever, cynical. He may have given up on himself, but he hasn’t given up on love—no matter how many times he claims he is unfit for coupling. His deepest desire is for connection. His strongest impulse is to push women away, disconnecting before the connection makes him feel judged or vulnerable. He makes disastrous choices and the consequences are irreversible. Still, there is hope. Even when it seems for all the world like there isn’t.

Mr. Letts has created a profoundly personal, beautifully honest piece of work that deeply engages the audience. Some of it is raw and incredibly uncomfortable.  Letts commits so fully to bringing the characters alive that there is little room for physical or emotional vanity. Our expectations are often upended; the friend on a “cunty” rant emerges as a voice of true wisdom; a “victim” of harassment gets furious when, unasked, a man rides to her rescue; a best pal refuses to give advice, offering a fatalistic vision that is at once existential and strangely loving.

The plot focuses on Wheeler (Ian Barford). He is in the middle of a two-years-long divorce and feels estranged, not just from his wife and teenaged son, but from life. He has settled into an undemanding job as a camera repairman for a lecherous boss, Michael (Troy West) and is friendly with a co-worker, Anita (Caroline Neff). As the play opens, Wheeler is moving out of the marital home (he had been sleeping in the garage) and getting his own apartment in Linda Vista.

His married friends Paul (Tom Hopper) and Margaret (Sally Murphy) arrange a blind date with Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach with a master’s degree in Happiness. We also meet Wheeler’s neighbor Minnie (Chantal Thuy), a 26-year-old Vietnamese woman with pink hair and a thoroughly modern disdain for anything inauthentic or old-fashioned. There’s karaoke, lots of uninhibited sex, rich conversation, many laughs, and love. Much more love than appears at first glance.

Ian Barford gives one of the most unselfconscious performances I’ve ever seen. I’m not just referring to the nudity and sex. He never seems to worry if we like him, neither as an actor nor as a character. This is the fourth Tracy Letts role Barford has originated and it shows. He and the material are inseparable. Cora Vander Broek is endlessly surprising, wearing Jules’ open vulnerability with fearless aplomb. Jules makes one of the most memorable observations of the evening, calling Wheeler a turtle who doesn’t realize he has lost his shell. Ms. Vander Broek makes it a sublime tragicomic moment.

Tim Hopper gets Paul’s humor, complexity, and humanity just right, and in the smaller role of Margaret, Sally Murphy has a scene at the top of the second act that I’m still thinking about. Margaret takes all the wind out of Wheeler’s sails, not out of bitchiness, but out of a sense of justice and an understanding of the human costs of selfishness. Ms. Murphy shines. Caroline Neff is a no-nonsense Anita—a sometimes reluctant truth-teller. Of the four female characters, Anita is the least emotionally entangled with Wheeler. She doesn’t want to be rescued, she wants to be seen and heard. She emerges as the surprise catalyst for Wheeler finding a glimmer of hope at the end, and Ms. Neff is earthy and believable.

Director Dexter Bullard has a clear love for the play and the actors. He effectively utilizes the turntable and Todd Rosenthal’s terrific sets, and he takes chances, trusting that action doesn’t always have to be front and center to be impactful, and actors don’t have to be loveable to make us fall in love.

photos by Craig Schwartz
(click on picture for larger image)

Linda Vista
Steppenwolf Theatre Company production
Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on February 17, 2019
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

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