After the sprawling narrative of “Mary Page Marlowe,” Tracy Letts returns to the simple sitcom roots of “Superior Donuts” with his new play, “Linda Vista,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Hayes Theater after a run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf. Well, Letts returns to TV land for the first act at least. The second act of “Linda Vista” is uncharted territory for the playwright, who gives us not one but four scenes where the funny, charming and very frustrated hero of the first act turns into a total creep and gets his comeuppance big time.
The creep is a middle-aged guy named Dick Wheeler, and the role fits Ian Barford like a well-used boxing glove. He immediately seduces with his wild, irreverent sense of humor, and Letts wraps him up with cutting barbs. “Linda Vista” is one of those boulevard comedies that you don’t see on Broadway anymore. Television made them obsolete, and in its opening scenes, “Linda Vista” plays like a great TV pilot.
In fact, Wheeler could be a male version of Bea Arthur in “Maude.” Both characters are middle-aged, sharp, politically liberal and they speak their mind at the drop of a Republican talking point because they’re more than a little bit pissed off. Maude didn’t have a career, but one of the subtexts of that TV series is that she’d be happier if she did. Maude would have been much better running a big business than the household of Walter Findlay, her fourth husband.
Wheeler has been married only once, but he’s getting a divorce and now living in the Linda Vista community of San Diego, where he works in a camera store. His frustration and reason for lashing out at all the conservative sacred cows is more focused than Maude’s rants: He used to be a promising photographer. He used to be somebody, or, at least, Wheeler thought he’d turn into somebody someday.
Letts deserves our appreciation: After all those New York Times articles about the Trump voter, it’s truly refreshing for someone to write about a loser on the other end of the political spectrum.
During the laugh riot that is the first act, two very different women (Chantal Thuy and Cora Vander Broek) enter Wheeler’s world. Naturally, he chooses the wrong one, much to the dismay of his married friends (Jim True-Frost and Sally Murphy, playing sounding boards with great aplomb).
In the beginning, Wheeler knows he has made the wrong choice. Letts gives us a scene early in “Linda Vista” where Wheeler chastises his boss (the delightfully gross Troy West) for letting the penis obliterate his better judgment regarding a fellow camera-store employee (the very cool Caroline Neff).
But Wheeler doesn’t take his own advice, because men do what they gotta do.
Letts clearly hates Wheeler. After letting the character loose with his stand-up routine in the first act, the playwright turns Wheeler into a horny bore in the second act. When Wheeler punches away at the world in Act 1, he’s funny and perceptive. When he’s being punched at in Act 2, he shuts down intellectually and responds with a series of f-bombs. He also dresses like a clown (costumes by Laura Bauer), and to punish him even more, Letts gives Wheeler a bad hip. Even more debilitating for the good of the play, Wheeler gets told off not once but multiple times. After the numbness has worn off, you may want to protect the louse from further verbal abuse.
Dexter Bullard directs in a way that recalls Mike Nichols’ work with early Neil Simon comedies; the first act of “Linda Vista” is innocuous fun. But what director could make the transition from there to the bottomless male chauvinist pigdom of Act 2? Barford handles that divide by giving us a male Maude in Act 1 and a hip Willy Loman in Act 2. He’s impressive essaying both roles — he doesn’t even look like the same guy — but those two very different Wheelers belong in different plays.
There’s also a major problem with the casting of Vander Broek. She’s not different enough looking from Thuy. Granted, when an actor spends this much time on stage totally naked, she or he wants to look good. Vander Broek looks better than good. Her body’s great, and that makes Wheeler’s choice much fuzzier than it should be. And while we’re on the subject, “Linda Vista” tells us that Wheeler is something of a shlub. Sorry, most 50-year-old men would kill for Barford’s build.