Spoiler Alert! Tracy Letts’ Linda Vista Theatre Review

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Tracy Letts-playwright and member of the Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble

I don’t know how many people have had a chance to see Tracy Letts’ new play Linda Vista, now on stage at Chicago’s fabled Steppenwolf Theater.  Maybe 40,000, maybe less.  I know that it’s heading for Broadway after Chicago and that eventually it will likely make its way to Toronto and other major cities.  So if you think you are going to go see the play in the near or distant future, please be forewarned that this review contains spoilers.

At its core, this is a play about dishonesty.  The play’s protagonist is named Wheeler (absolutely no one refers to him by his first name, Dick, though it is pretty accurate) and the play concerns his dishonesty.  Letts’ choice of Wheeler as a surname is fitting for Wheeler spins his wheels in the play, can be seen as a ‘wheeler dealer’ and possesses a breeziness that the name suggests.  Wheeler is a big man, both in physique and personality.  He dominates the play and, in fact, is on stage in every scene of this 150 minute drama.  Wheeler has moved to an apartment in Linda Vista, a neighbourhood of San Diego.  He has left his divorced wife and son behind in Chicago, and certainly left behind any aspirations to be a serious photographer.  He is a know it all, but is so self-deprecating, that he has a certain charm.  It’s easy to agree with his disparagement of current movies and pop music, though the tone he uses to deliver his message is so strident and his smugness so absolute, that it is also off putting.  His friends Paul and Margaret want to set him up with a friend.  Wheeler complains loudly but goes along with it.  On the date, Wheeler appears to be miserable, yet he takes the woman, Jules, home and starts an unlikely relationship with her.  He then lies to Jules about why he is ending the relationship and jumps heedlessly into the current pop culture he earlier maligned.  As the lies build up, the audience loses patience with Wheeler, who, perhaps, grates on us because we recognize bits of ourselves in him.

The play is remarkable in a number of ways.  The revolving stage is employed cleverly to indicate movement between disparate places, to demonstrate impulsive behavior between rooms of one location and to suggest that Wheeler’s natural movement is to go round and round.  There are two scenes which feature full frontal nudity.  Interestingly, it is not the sex that shocks, but the sharing of such mundane post-coital acts as a casual tissue wipe of semen.  Obviously, the commitment that nudity and simulated sex demands of actors is uncommon.  But the sex does not dominate the play; rather, Wheeler’s dishonesty is the specter that looms over the play.  Another great feature of the play is the use of the music of Steely Dan.  The super cool duo are a favourite of Wheeler and perfectly represent his penchant for the cooly ironic and the anti-commercial.  Wheeler’s admiration of film director Stanley Kubrick is a nice touch too; Kubrick is an auteur that continues to breed admiration from his smarter than the rest of you devotees.  Yet, in a compelling scene, Wheeler tries in vain to share Barry Lyndon with Jules and only succeeds in putting her to sleep.  The viewing even causes Wheeler to question what he saw in the film.

The acting is remarkable.  Ian Barford is tremendous as the protagonist Wheeler and his exhaustion at the curtain call is understandable.  Also shining in this production are Cora Vander Brock as life coach Jules who sees the good in Wheeler that even Wheeler has given up on, and Tim Hopper as Paul, who puts up with Wheeler even though he knows what he’s like.  Their characters are consistent and believable.

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Ian Barford as Wheeler (left) and Tim Hopper as Paul in Linda Vista

Ultimately though, it is the writing that shines above all.  Some stellar dialogue resonates long after the curtain call.  In a great scene between Paul and Wheeler, Letts asks some hard questions about marriage and if it is ultimately worth the compromises that it demands.  Paul’s repetition of the phrase “you are going to do what you are going to do” sounds evasive at first, but ultimately reveals how well he knows Wheeler and sees through his supposed moral line of questioning.  Two other great scenes of dialogue occur late in the play.   Wheeler breaks up with Jules at a restaurant and the dramatic irony present makes his phony anger truly repulsive.  Later, in a scene at the camera shop where he works fixing old cameras, Wheeler rips into his lewd boss Michael, but the condemnation which is supposed to be a defense of his colleague Anita from Michael’s perverted conversation, is really thinly disguised self-loathing.  What’s more, it ends up dooming Anita and forcing her to quit.

The choice of camera repairman as Wheeler’s job is a stroke of genius.  Wheeler spends his days poring over what is obsolete.  He prefers the mysteries of single lens reflex to the mass commercial appeal of iPhones.  He even admits that no one uses the cameras he labors over; his very employment is a rejection of reality.  The fact that he was once employed as a photo journalist also demonstrates the extent to which he has rejected the possibilities of imagination in favour of mechanical repair.

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Ian Barford as Wheeler and Caroline Neff as Anita in the symbolically charged camera shop

Ultimately, Wheeler can run from Chicago, but he can’t escape himself.  His self-destructiveness is so thorough that it has the power to undermine what seems a final innocent act-the artistic photograph of his co-worker Anita.  As much as we may want to believe that there is some trace of a desire to be good in Wheeler, we can’t help wondering if this is all a pick up move too.

This production was not perfect.  Both the characters Michael and Minnie seemed less like real individuals and more like convenient foils to Wheeler.  In fact, Minnie and Wheeler’s relationship seems to defy plausibility.  A scene at Jules’ workplace includes a large red fitness ball; Jules is a life coach, not a personal trainer.  It is too predictable when Wheeler sits on the ball like a forlorn child after his attempt at rapprochement is  summarily rejected.  Similarly, in the opening scene of the play, Wheeler and Paul are in the process of moving Wheeler in to Linda Vista, but the sporadic unpacking of the boxes seems less like real life and a lot more like calculated stage business.  Finally, there is the title of the play.  Linda Vista simply does not capture the essence of  the drama.  Even if taking the Spanish translation of beautiful view into consideration, the title is weak and fails to compel.  Perhaps ‘Single Reflex’ or ‘Shuttered Bug’ are too self-consciously punny, but Letts needs to find a better title before this production heads to  New York City.

Linda Vista is a powerful play which in its examination of dishonesty forces us to re-examine the positions we hold and the way we manage relationships.  It is by turns funny, sad, surprising and utterly predictable.  Go see it.

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