Tracy Letts could just as easily have called his latest play Train Wreck, so hot a mess is its 50-year-old protagonist that much of the pleasure of Letts’ relentlessly funny, defiantly unsentimental Linda Vista (a Steppenwolf visitor to the Mark Taper Forum) is watching its antihero (emphasis on the anti) get what he so richly deserves.

 We first meet Wheeler (a bravura Ian Barford) unpacking boxes in a move from the San Diego garage he’s been consigned to since the breakup of his fifteen-year marriage, and spouting one hilariously target-reaching Donald Trump putdown after another to longtime buddy Paul (Tim Harper), still happily/unhappily married to Margaret (Sally Murphy), the woman they both dated in their college days.

 Before long, Wheeler, a former Chicago Sun-Times photographer turned camera repairman at a shop run by middle-age-pervy Michael (Troy West), has agreed to let himself be dragged by Paul and Margaret on a karaoke blind date with Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach with “a Masters Degree in Happiness,” i.e., the woman who just might save Wheeler from himself, or so it would seem until he offers tattooed, pink-haired 20something Vietnamese-American Minnie (Chantal Thuy) a couch to sleep on till she gets her own screwed up life together.

 If Linda Vista’s initial scenes suggest that Letts (famed for the edgy Killer Joe and Bug, and even more so for the epic August: Osage County) might just be the next Neil Simon, or that its protagonist’s unexpected relationship with Jules will turn Linda Vista into a touchingly feel-good romcom, leave it to Wheeler to once again make the worst possible decision and take Letts’ latest into genre-defying seas.

 Despite a daunting (and doubtlessly trimmable) two-hour-fifty-minute running time, Linda Vista never fails to engage, or to push buttons, particularly as directed with electrifying precision by Dexter Bullard and performed by some of Chicago’s finest talents, beginning with Barford’s tour-de-force, warts-and-all, prematurely decrepit Wheeler.

 Vander Broek’s upbeat-but-vulnerable Jules and Thuy’s tough-talking, self-sabotaging Minnie are two-times terrific in performances that have them getting both emotionally and physically naked. (Barford strips down to his birthday suit too in simulated sex scenes as funny as they are skin-revealing.)

Hopper and Murphy do pitch-perfect work as a couple whose marriage, Letts would seem to be suggesting, is as good as it gets (not necessarily a compliment),

 West is equally spot-on as the revoltingly (if pretty much cluelessly) sexual-harassing Michael, and Caroline Neff is so good as Anita, a young woman forced to put up with Michael’s workplace bullshit, that her return after a two-hour absence proves well worth the wait.

 Todd Rosenthal’s multi-locale scenic design, backed by an ever-present San Diego marina skyline, demonstrates how much a revolving set can do, design kudos shared by ace costumer Laura Bauer, lighting whiz Marcus Doshi, and sound design expert Richard Woodbury.

David S. Franklin is production stage manager and Michelle Blair is stage manager. Lindsay Allbaugh is associate producer.

 Casting is by JC Clementz. Elijah Alexander, Robert Maffia, Elaine Rifkin, Hannah Tamminen, and Virginia Tran are understudies.

If Letts’ Superior Donuts showcased the August: Osage County Pulitzer Prize winner in kinder, gentler mode, Linda Vista has the Steppenwolf legend resisting feel-good dramedy pretty much every step of the way. You may not like Wheeler, you may even celebrate his comeuppance, but like the proverbial train wreck, you’ll be hard-pressed to look away.

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Mark Taper Forum, 35 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Through February 17. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8:00. Saturdays at 2:30 and 8:00. Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30. Reservations: 213 628-2772

–Steven Stanley
January 16, 2019
Photos: Craig Schwartz Photography

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