A man is breaking up with a woman over dinner. She’s a life coach, and he is — to use a label he hates but is most accurate — a hot mess. “You don’t listen to me,” he says callously. And yet, up to this point the audience has, for nearly two hours, listened to him say things like, “I’m kind of a snob. I like old Hollywood movies,” and, “I don’t like many modern bands, or old bands… I like jazz,” and let’s not forget, “Where was I when Ali MacGraw was addicted to sex?”
This man is (as you may have guessed) white, middle-aged, and newly divorced. As the protagonist of Linda Vista, which opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes tonight, he’s difficult to root for, and not just because he embodies so many cliches as to seem like the product of a dude-bro formula (add misanthropy and subtract stable female companion). That he’s also a failed photographer and waxes righteous about objectivity seems an absurd irony for a character whose head is so firmly planted up his own ass.
And maybe that’s the point. A man’s journey to self-realization — through divorce, sex with multiple women, a locker room chat with what seems like his only friend — could be a worthy, if wholly unoriginal plot. Men, particularly those who fit this description, are having a rough time of it lately. But playwright Tracy Letts isn’t offering an indictment of misogyny, nor (thankfully) is he leading some misguided rehabilitation tour. If anything, Linda Vista feels like the play form of a male ego sucking its thumb (or self-pleasuring another appendage). No surprise then, that it’s dramatically DOA.
For this to be a believable story about a man (this one played by Ian Barford) who by the end learns something about himself and the world, the women with whom he interacts would have to be, well… women. Here they are foils, sometimes of questionable self-respect and almost always in distress, who are inexplicable as characters outside of the function they serve along his way. The one he cruelly dumps in public (Cora Vander Broek) begins as a blind date in a karaoke bar, where she responds to his broad denunciation of popular music by saying, “You have a strong point of view. And the ability to express it. That’s impressive.” Is it though?
The women of Linda Vista (named for the San Diego apartment complex in and around which it’s set) have a habit of making pronouncements the playwright suggests are true while his text plainly proves they are not. Take the man’s much younger neighbor (Chantal Thuy) with pink hair and boy problems, who winds up crashing on his couch and, eventually, incredibly, falling into bed with him. “This is not your wet dream. And I’m not a doll, I’m not a sweet Asian flower,” she says afterward, as if hedging on Letts behalf against the fact that all of the above are true. How else to explain why she moves in, decides to keep her ex-boyfriend’s baby, and raise it with a man she clocked as a deadbeat the first time they met?
Linda Vista, originally produced at the Steppenwolf in Chicago, Letts’ creative home, is difficult to square. His Tony and Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County teems with indomitable, broken-down, fiery female characters. His most recent, Mary Page Marlowe, follows one woman through decades of her life in attempting to see her from every angle. (As an actor, he even played Lady Bird’s dad!) “Vista” is defined as, “a view or prospect, especially one seen through a long, narrow avenue or passage.” Masculine myopia certainly seems like a fair diagnosis, but it doesn’t just afflict the protagonist. As director Dexter Bullard’s production continues to rotate on itself, the feeling that both play and playwright are running in place is hard to escape.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
photos by joan marcus