At 50, Wheeler (Ian Barford) – he eschews first name Dick for increasingly apparent reasons – is coming off an acrimonious divorce later admitted as mostly his fault. A 13 year-old son oddly seems of little interest. Best friend Paul (Jim True-Frost) helps him move into a new apartment at Linda Vista -there’s a pool! The space has no personality when he moves in and none months later. Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design is spare and uncaring; Marcus Doshi’s lighting, unforgiving.
Both men are liberals (Wheeler’s a rabid one), yet talk like sexists. Once a professional photographer, the middle aged teddy bear (only half the story) buckled to exhibit criticism. “I had a gift, but it just didn’t develop.” He now repairs cameras at a local shop. It’s a dead end job. Owner Michael (Troy West) is a vulgar depressive who talks about busty, young salesgirl Anita (Caroline Neff) like an article out of 60s Hustler magazine. Anita ignores him.
Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) think it’s time for their friend to start dating again. “I’m too old to be something I’m not and a lot of the things I am are not attractive,” says the reluctant suitor. (Despite our best instincts, self depreciation often appeals to women.)
The truth of Wheeler’s intermittent self awareness becomes obvious when he chats up a young, pink haired, Vietnamese punk in a bar (Minnie, played by Chantal Thuy). She turns him down flat.
Next thing we know, he’s on a double date at a karaoke bar with Paul, Margaret, and an attractive life coach named Jules (Cora Vander Broek) who “no, really” has “a degree in Happiness.” At first, notably gruff and critical of everything, Wheeler comes around when Jules calls him sweet; he observes her abandoned singing; and they get drunk. The actors are fully naked as they simulate love making, as well as afterwards.
Much to my surprise, there’s no listing for the Intimacy Coach often employed these days. This is the most realistic sex I’ve ever seen on stage and not the last naked body you’ll see. The beautifully written scene contains heat, humor, and credible idiosyncrasy.
Time passes. The relationship develops. Jules lets down her defenses. It looks like love. Then one night the front bell unexpectedly rings and it’s Minnie, with all her worldly goods in a plastic laundry basket. She’s been physically abused and thrown out by her boyfriend. The girl is pregnant; she has nowhere to stay. (The only credibility gap in the piece.) Minnie moves onto the couch and into the couple’s domestic lives.
As in every other serious relationship he’s had, Wheeler royally messes up. What ensues is frustrating and infuriating, though like many men of his type, he engenders some sympathy. Paul, Margaret, and the audience want to shake some sense into the wrongheaded, middle-aged narcissist. We can’t, of course. Consequences are suffered.
Playwright Tracy Letts’ dialogue is smart, dark, often funny, and totally realistic. Every character appears to have had a life before we become voyeurs and will continue without us. The play’s arc lurches with human foibles and failure, avoiding neat resolution.‘Another well realized piece in the author’s exploration of stumbling middle age. (Man From Nebraska takes a more existential view.)
As Wheeler, Ian Barford offers a deftly layered persona. The way he moves, speaks, reacts, and even looks at women is all of a piece. At one point, his right knee unexpectedly buckles during successive steps – a result of both Wheeler’s bad hip and extremely athletic sex. A well-crafted portrayal.
The cast is excellent; Cora Vander Broek’s Jules especially well grounded. Through the character’s sunny, positive demeanor, we catch glimpses of a still healing emotional wound. Chemistry is palpable. The actress listens. A woman we know.
Dexter Bullard’s direction is nuanced; timing superb; staging imaginative. (Even backs are well employed.)
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Cora Vander Broek (Jules) and Ian Barford (Wheeler)
Second Stage presents Steppenwolf’s Production of
Linda Vista by Tracy Letts
Directed by Dexter Bullard
The Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street
Through November 10, 2019