Tracy Letts’s new play, Linda Vista, swept in from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company where it premiered in April of 2017, sneaks up on an audience in this sterling production under the keen direction of Dexter Bullard. On opening night, the audience filled the Mark Taper Forum to capacity and was cheerfully buzzing along in anticipation. The playwright could be seen chatting with friends and acquaintances inside and outside the auditorium. His recorded voice announces the usual caveats over the loudspeaker—turn off phones, unwrap candies, and so on. On stage in the brightly lit auditorium, a couple of guys are moving some boxes onto the set, which represents a furnished apartment. Is the play starting? The house lights are still up. Then as the lights fade, one of the guys’ cell phones rings and the audience is instantly silent. It is an indelibly theatrical moment that rivets attention, presages what is to come.
Set in various locales in San Diego, Mr. Letts peoples his play with flawed, damaged characters struggling against circumstances of their own making and of unfortunate chance. Wheeler (Ian Barford) is moving into a two-bedroom apartment with the help of his long-time friend, Paul (Tim Hopper) after living in his garage during a hostile divorce from his wife. Wheeler is a bitter, negative fifty-year old with plenty of intelligence and not much charm. He despises current music and cinema, loves jazz and old movies, especially Kubrick’s candle-lit Barry Lyndon.
Wheeler works in a camera shop run by Michael (Troy West), a lecherous type who openly lusts after his employee, Anita (Caroline Neff), but only in his mind. He will never act on it. Anita is in recovery. Paul and his wife, Margaret (Sally Murphy), childless by choice, set a reluctant Wheeler up with a date. Jules (Cora Vander Broek), an attractive, effervescent life-counselor, does her best to connect with the dour Wheeler. Lest you think this is all a downer, be assured this play is rich with splendid black comedy and loads of laughs. The date scene takes place in a karaoke bar that is all kinds of fun. Wheeler and Jules eventually connect, ending up in an extended, jaw dropping, bare-naked sex scene of wild, unabashed sensual hilarity.
Mr. Letts enriches the story with Minnie (Chantal Thuy), a smart, sharp-tongued, twenty-something woman of Asian extraction whose vivacity is irresistible to the faithless Wheeler and leads to some pretty lively, pretty bitter action. There is a price to be paid, and it falls on Wheeler in scenes of searing emotion that lead to a powerful climax and a smart dénoument.
The production benefits from an extraordinary scenic design by Todd Rosenthal set on a cunning revolving stage that rotates to show a variety of locales that appear like magic, which is smartly lit by Marcus Doshi. The sound design by Richard Woodbury is subtle or loudly raucous as needed, with a splendid playlist that enhances the show. Laura Bauer’s costume design fully supports character and action. Edward Sobel is the dramaturg and the production stage manager is David S. Franklin.
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Tracy Letts’ Linda Vista runs through February 17 at the Mark Taper Forum, located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles.