A sad romantic comedy sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s an apt-enough description of “Linda Vista,” a slight but funny and quietly affecting play from Tracy Letts, which has opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater in a superbly acted co-production from Second Stage and Chicago’s Steppenwolf.
The protagonist — he’s hardly a hero, or even an anti-hero — is Wheeler, played with mordant glumness by the longtime Steppenwolf member Ian Barford. Wheeler is a man with both an emotional and a physical paunch. He’s 50 and going through an unpleasant divorce. An ex-photojournalist now reduced to doing repair work at a camera shop in a suburb of San Diego (do those shops really exist anymore, or are we in Beckett territory?), Wheeler goes by his last name, perhaps in part, he implies, because his first name is Dick.
As he will be the first to admit, metaphorically speaking Dick is a spot-on moniker. When Wheeler, whom we first meet as he is moving into a new apartment after spending several months in his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s garage, hears that his old friends have described him as “broken and joyless,” he is far from offended. Actually, he is smugly pleased to know they have recognized his loudly advertised misery and misanthropy.
He is also, as we learn when those friends, the married Paul (Jim True-Frost) and Margaret (Sally Murphy), set him up on a date with a potential new partner named Jules, positively splashing around in his anomie, and happy to spread his moroseness to anyone he meets. Jules (Cora Vander Broek), who is at least 10 years younger than Wheeler, and is both beautiful and warm, evokes an unsubtle inner sneer from Wheeler because she works as a life coach and has a degree in “happiness.”
Nevertheless, and a bit improbably, they fall into bed together after a night at a karaoke bar. What follows is perhaps the funniest sex scene I’ve ever seen. And easily the most melancholy. It would be unfair to reveal what takes place, but perhaps I can say that the words “Please don’t touch me!” are uttered in irritation.
Also: a copy of the Atlantic magazine figures in the proceedings.
Even more improbably, after this spectacularly unpromising beginning Jules and Wheeler begin seriously dating. But Wheeler’s self-sabotaging instincts rise to the occasion. After running into a young (and, yes, beautiful) Vietnamese-American woman, Minnie (Chantal Thuy) at a bar — she mockingly derides him for trying to hit on her — they discovered they live in the same apartment complex. And so, when Minnie finds herself suddenly on the outs with an abusive boyfriend, she shows up at Wheeler’s door with her belongings haphazardly tossed together. Romantic complications follow.
Letts’s portrait of a would-be artist (“craftsman” is all Wheeler will allow himself) as a muddled middle-aged man is drawn with rueful truth and often-lacerating humor, although some of Wheeler’s jokes (a swipe at, yawn, a culture that could elect a TV star to the presidency) feel as if they could be pulled out of or put into any contemporary play.
Barford, who appeared in Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County,” imbues Wheeler with a dour self-mockery that makes his magnetizing effect on younger women seem reasonably convincing. Wheeler may pass around a puu-puu platter of contempt freely, but he saves the choicest and often wittiest morsels for himself.
But it’s also true that a play about the woes of a feckless 50-year-old who finds his bedroom turning into a tossed salad of comely young women will be perceived by some as being out of step with today’s zeitgeist. Wheeler’s success in attracting young women almost beggars belief.
Fortunately, Letts draws the women in his orbit with sympathy and almost as much insight, if less attention, as he does Wheeler. (Letts’s wonderful play “Mary Page Marlowe” illustrated his ability to delve into the lives of women with as much emotional acuity as he brings to the lives of men.) The female characters in “Linda Vista” are much more than cannon fodder for Wheeler to battle through his psychological and emotional issues.
I wasn’t totally convinced that Jules would find herself quickly involved with a man whose confusion she was warned about and recognized, but Vander Broek brings a scorching acidity to the scenes in which Jules must deal with the ramifications of her misjudgment. And as Minnie, Thuy is a vibrant presence who never quite lets down her guard, and keeps her razor-edged tongue continually sharpened.
Even Margaret, whom the touching Murphy imbues with a seething resentment (both of Wheeler and her own rather wilting marriage), proves a strong foil for Wheeler’s follies, particularly when she learns, to her scornful disgust, that he has committed one of the clichés of men floundering in middle age, namely getting a tattoo. (Back when midlife crises were fresher news, it was buying a sportscar — well out of Wheeler’s financial range anyway.)
Far from ending with a clinch, “Linda Vista,” which is directed by Dexter Bullard with a fine sense of its mixture of humor and rue, leaves us with a Wheeler no less sad — and no less alone — but perhaps a little wiser. He has come to realize the damage his selfishness masquerading as self-contempt has done to those around him, which extends even to a misguided attempt to come to the defense of a female co-worker (Caroline Neff makes a strong impression in this small role).
Wheeler ends as a man repentant and, it is implied, on the path at least to redemption, both spiritually and perhaps professionally. Only by seeing beyond himself has he learned to truly see himself. But what leaves the sharpest tang of sadness in “Linda Vista” is the notion that Wheeler’s rehabilitation has come at a greater cost to the women in his life than to him.
“Linda Vista” opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on Thurs., Oct. 10, 2019.
Creative: Written by Tracy Letts; Directed by Dexter Bullard; Scenic Design by Todd Rosenthal; Costume Design by Laura Bauer; Lighting Design by Marcus Doshi; Sound Design by Richard Woodbury.
Producers: Second Stage Theater and Steppenwolf Theatre Company in association with Center Theatre Group.
Cast: Ian Barford, Sally Murphy, Caroline Neff, Chantal Thuy, Jim True-Frost, Cora Vander Broek, Troy West.