Wheeler (Ian Barford, left) moves into his new apartment with the help of his friend Paul (Tim Hopper, right). “Linda Vista” photo by Craig Schwartz.

by Cynthia Citron

Wheeler is an unhappy man, drifting through life without direction, without ambition, without compassion, without hope. A self-absorbed man who recognizes himself as a loser. Yet in the end he has won a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.

Ian Barford plays Wheeler, the focus of a new play by Tracy Letts, the extraordinary Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning creator of “August: Osage County.”

In this new play, “Linda Vista”, which opened last week at the Mark Taper Forum, Barford is surrounded by an awesome team of his fellow ensemble members from Chicago’s wonderful Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

There is Paul (Tim Hopper), his long-time (and apparently only) friend, who, as the play opens, is helping him move into his new apartment. It is definitely a step up for Wheeler, who has been living in the garage of the home he once shared with his ex-wife and their teen-aged son.

And as the Taper’s revolving stage turns away from the apartment, we see Wheeler at his workplace. Once a professional photographer, he is now a camera repairman in a shop managed by Michael (Troy West) a white-bearded misogynist obsessed with sex. Wheeler works at this demeaning job because, as he confesses to Paul, he is not as great a photographer as the “greats” that he admires and, at 50, he is “too old to be something I’m not.”

At Paul’s insistence, however, he agrees to go out to a karaoke bar with Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) and Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a blind date. Fairly indifferent at first, he nevertheless brings Jules home and engages her in a scene in which they both appear onstage totally naked and indulge in sexual intercourse that, in any other context, you would swear was real.

But a little later their “budding romance” is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman named Minnie (Chantal Thuy) that Wheeler had met at a lunch counter and attempted, perfunctorily, to pick up. Explaining that she had been assaulted by her boyfriend and claiming that she had nowhere else to go, Minnie arrives at Wheeler’s apartment with a basketful of assorted possessions and an 8-week-old embryo in her belly. With Jules’ amused approval, Wheeler allows her to stay.

Meanwhile, Jules and Wheeler continue their affair, but after a month, apparently feeling squeezed in that relationship, Wheeler takes Minnie to bed for the first time. And their naked sex scene is even more torrid than the one he had had with Jules.

When next he appears he is wearing a hippie outfit, a black leather jacket, and a “Minnie” tattoo on his arm. He has succeeded in talking her out of an abortion and has resolutely committed himself to serving as the father of her unborn child.

At an impromptu picnic with Paul and Margaret, Wheeler tells them of his plans and confesses that he is in love with Minnie. Whereupon Paul responds with wonder that “You’re really going all out with this Daddy-O thing!” But Margaret is incensed that he has broken up with her friend Jules and left her heart-broken. “You don’t want a wife,” Margaret says to Wheeler, “You want a playmate!”

Earlier, in a stormy scene at a restaurant where he is breaking up with Jules, Wheeler callously ignores her agonized crying by wondering aloud where their waitress has gone.

All this is merely the outline of the story that Tracy Letts presents. There are other issues and a sad subplot with a woman named Anita (Caroline Neff) who works in the photoshop with Wheeler. And all of these characters are effectively galvanized by the impeccable direction of Dexter Bullard and the creative scenic design of Todd Rosenthal.

But the last word goes to the playwright because he has so many of them. Humorous, humiliating, witty, and grim. But thoroughly engaging.

A non sequitur: “Linda Vista” is the name of Wheeler’s apartment building in San Diego. It’s also the name of a massive musical ensemble that performs during the intermission and at the end, as the audience is leaving.

“Linda Vista” will play Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 p.m. through February 17 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets may be purchased by calling (213) 628-2772 or online at CenterTheatreGroup.org.

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