Review: “Linda Vista” at the Mark Taper Forum

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  • Jill Weinlein, Chief Los Angeles Critic

If I took a poll as audience members walked out of “Linda Vista” at the Mark Taper Forum, I wonder if men enjoyed Tracy Letts dark comedy more than women. While both my husband and I laughed during the first half of the show, the play grew heavy and the pace slowed after intermission.

“Linda Vista” is about a broken, joyless 50 year-old man named Wheeler (perfectly played by Ian Barford). Past his prime, he is starting a new life after a failed marriage. Letts clues in the audience with the line “my wife wants a dollar amount so high, only dogs can hear it.” After an affair and living on a cot in his garage, Wheeler overhears his grunting teenage son say “Who is that loser out there, oh yeah, it’s our dad.”

Barford’s history with playwright Letts encompasses four different roles in his successful repertoire including Little Charles in August: Osage County. Both are ensemble members of Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

Letts is not only a Pulitzer Prize winner, but also a Tony Award winning actor. His gift is writing distinctive characters, and the lead in this play reveals himself humorously as he rants about Donald Trump, OxyContin and classic rock music. With an apparent obsession to Steely Dan songs, sound designer Richard Woodbury enhances this notion by cueing nine different Steely Dan songs including “Deacon Blues” “Do It Again” “Hey Nineteen”and “The Royal Scam,” during each scene change.

Most of the cast and director Dexter Bullard are also part of the Steppenwolf tribe. That might be why they are comfortable in the hilarious and sometimes shocking scenes.

Bullard cleverly opens the show with the house lights up. Wheeler and his friend Paul (likable Tim Hopper) walk onto Todd Rosenthals slowly revolving set carrying golf clubs, moving boxes and an old stereo system into a bland, yet furnished Linda Vista apartment.

The cacophony of excitement from the audience softens slightly, as Wheeler limps on and off the stage, hinting at his damaged persona. The audience banter subsides with the ring of a cell phone and the lights dim. Cues in birds chirping and a helicopter flying overhead as the downtown San Diego skyline is displayed above the set.

Soon every character’s flaw unravels, especially Wheeler’s boss Michael (talented Troy West). While fixing cameras in Michael’s mundane camera shop, we observe this disturbed and suicidal boss spouting out twisted and prurient thoughts. It gave me the creeps and could easily turn into a #MeToo moment for Anita (strong performance by Caroline Neff), a co-worker in the store. Michael's “best time of the day is when he puts his head on the pillow. The worst moment is when he wakes up and opens his eyes.”

Meeting the damaged 20 something Minnie (likable Chantal Thuy) at a bar with her runaway look and millennial rockabilly style, they realize they both live at Linda Vista. Street smart Minnie is a sassy, no nonsense survivor, who is old enough to be his daughter.

When friends Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) set Wheeler up with a similar in age friend friend of theirs, Jules Ish (brave Cora Vander Broek), one never understands how or why this Master in Happiness Life Coach finds Wheeler attractive. While he shows no interest on the double date, the two end the evening in their birthday suit, and the audience, especially in the first five rows of the intimate Mark Taper Forum, receive quite an eye full.

Their relationship blossoms for one month, until Minnie knocks on Wheeler’s door seeking refuge. Wheeler throws away conventional bliss for a doomed detour with the younger woman in need. She in turn, soon throws him away to face her realities.

Realizing his foolish error in judgement, Wheeler goes back to Jules begging for companionship, however she finds the strength to toss this pathetic louse away.

While the words Linda Vista in Spanish mean beautiful view, Wheeler never appreciates what he has, until it is gone.

“Linda Vista” runs through February 17, 2019. The cast includes, in alphabetical order, Ian Barford, Tim Hopper, Sally Murphy, Caroline Neff, Chantal Thuy, Cora Vander Broek and Troy West.

This show is not appropriate for children, due to nudity scenes.

The creative team features scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Laura Bauer, lighting design by Marcus Doshi and sound design by Richard Woodbury. Edward Sobel is the dramaturg and the production stage manager is David S. Franklin.

Linda Vista opens Wednesday, January 16 at 8 p.m. (Previews January 9 through 15)

Runs through February 17, 2019 at the Mark Taper Forum. Performance Days and Times: Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. No performance on Mondays. “Linda Vista” runs two hours and forty minutes including one intermission. Ticket Prices: $30 - $99 Online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.  By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.628.2772. In person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at The Music Center

Group Sales: 213.972.7231

Deaf community information and charge: visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/ACCESS

Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.