Don’t let Linda Vista – as in, lovely sight – the title of Tracy Letts’ dark-tinged rom-dram on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater fool you: There’s nothing pretty to see in this portrait of an unsympathetic 50-year-old in the throes of an ugly divorce and middle-age tailspin who leaves emotional skid marks in his wake.
But that’s just how Wheeler (Ian Barford) rolls. He goes by his surname, most likely since Dick hits too close for comfort for this cynic who believes, possibly correctly, that he’s the smartest guy in every room. As such, he always has a witty or withering remark at the ready.
A former Chicago Sun-Times photographer now living in San Diego, Wheeler is still reeling from a professional crisis of confidence that has led him to stop snapping photos. Instead he works in a camera shop while grappling with a dead marriage and a teenaged son he never speaks to.
Amid all that, Wheeler is starting over. With his pal Paul (Jim True-Frost), he hefts belongings into his new apartment, a boxy place as nondescript as its new occupant. Besides helping him get settled, Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), who dated Wheeler, set him up on a blind date with Jules (an affecting Cora Vander Broek), a life coach gutted by her last breakup.
Wheeler doesn’t even try to hide his disdain for Jules’ work or her master’s degree “in happiness.” But he’s drawn to the fact that she’s drawn to him. Following a so-so date and very awkward sex, staged with full-frontal frankness by director Dexter Bullard, mutual feelings bloom. But two other women in Wheeler’s orbit prove to be thorns: twenty-something Minnie (Chantal Thuy), who’s up to her eyeballs in issues, and low-key thirtyish coworker Anita (Caroline Neff).
Known for his dark early works, Bug and Killer Joe, along with his sprawling, Tony- and Pulitzer prize-winning multigenerational drama August: Osage County, Letts is in a minor mode here. And a lite one. The first act feels like he’s channeling Neil Simon. “It’s a number so high only dogs can hear it,” Wheeler cracks about his ex’s monetary settlement demand. But this script is more profane and racier – Barenaked in the Bedroom, not Barefoot in the Park.
Wheeler’s streaming quips, even as defensive armor, turn wearying. By the time Jules tells Wheeler to “stop making jokes,” one wishes Letts, a gifted author, would do likewise. And he does. The plot develops and deepens to comment on marriage, parenthood and friendship.
Barford, uninhibited and honest, is perfectly cast and leads a uniformly very fine ensemble in this Steppenwolf production presented on Broadway by Second Stage. Throughout the nearly three-hour show, songs by Steely Dan such as Deacon Blues blare. Fitting, since it’s the soundtrack of Wheeler’s youth, and the band knows its way around less-than-likable guys.
Similar to Todd Rosenthal’s efficient revolving set, which spins from apartment to karaoke bar, gym and beyond, the story essentially goes around and around without getting very far. Eventually it turns to the faint whiff of redemption. “It’s harder than it looks,” Anita says. “Being a person.” As takeaways and vistas go, that’s an altogether familiar outlook.