Chicago Theatre Review
Starting Over Again
Linda Vista – Steppenwolf Theatre
As Todd Rosenthal’s remarkably detailed and versatile turntable stage setting gradually reveals itself, Dick Wheeler, aided by his best friend Paul, is moving into a contemporary two-bedroom flat in San Diego. It’s an apartment complex called Linda Vista. Wheeler’s tired of sleeping on a lumpy cot in his ex-wife’s garage and he’s finally ready to rejoin the human race start over again. Wheeler, who once was lauded as a pretty good photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times, has been working for the past eight years at an old-fashioned camera repair shop. He can barely stomach Michael, his smarmy, sexist employer, but he enjoys the company of his pretty, young coworker, Anita. Tracy Letts’ very adult comedy depicts the second chapter of this intelligent man’s emotionally-charged life. Cleverly, Wheeler’s story of love and loss is perfectly mirrored by Rosenthal’s ever-changing cyclical scenic design.
Paul and Margaret, Wheeler’s longtime married friends, have decided to help launch Wheeler into his new lifestyle by setting him up on a blind date with their friend, Jules. At first Wheeler isn’t into this amiable, karaoke-singing woman, who works as a life coach, but eventually Jules wins him over. Just as their hot romance seems to be smoking along a smooth track, Wheeler accidentally runs into Minnie at a local bar. She’s a punk, free-thinking, millennial rockabilly babe, who also happens to live at the Linda Vista apartment complex.
Late one night, after her abusive boyfriend throws her out, an eight-week pregnant Minnie shows up at Wheeler’s door. With nowhere else to turn, Wheeler lets Minnie temporarily stay in his spare bedroom. It doesn’t take long before the obvious happens and the two are going at it hot and heavy. Wheeler stupidly breaks up with Jules to become Minnie’s new sugar daddy. Complications ensue as Wheeler’s frustration and anger begin to spiral out of control. Repeating the same mistakes as he made earlier in life, Wheeler ends the play as he began it: starting all over again.
This latest play by Tracy Letts is premiering at Steppenwolf, where the actor/playwright is also a company ensemble member. As we’ve come to expect with this company, the seven-member ensemble cast is very strong and most talented. Company member Ian Barford, who also starred in the playwright’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning “August: Osage County,” as well as in “Mary Page Marlowe,” is very familiar with the playwright’s language. He understands how to maneuver the shrewdly intricate rhythms of a Tracy Letts work, finding the heart and core of each sentence. In one moment, Barford rages and bellows; then he suddenly reigns it all in when more sensitivity is demanded. Barford’s Wheeler audaciously rides the play’s shifting waves of complacency, indignation and fury with the other people who populate his world.
The ever remarkable Tim Hopper plays Wheeler’s best buddy, Paul, with an offhand, flippant attitude drenched with the actor’s typical dry, comic delivery. Together these two actors play off each other well. They share one of the best scenes in the play, as they pack up their gear following a handball game, all the while discussing the journey to the grave that everyone will take. It’s dark humor at its best, and it allows both actors to experience, for the audience’s pleasure, a scene that feels both organic and universal.
As Jules, talented Cora Vander Broek plays a sweet, very likable woman for whom the audience feels so much empathy. We’ve seen enough of Wheeler to know his quirks and passions, as well as the topics that set him off. For instance, our current political situation often forces Wheeler to grandstand his views. However the unexpected trajectory of Jules and Wheeler’s romance still prompts a collective gasp from the audience.
As Minnie, the Vietnamese-American, 20-something sex kitten, Kahyun Kim makes an auspicious debut at this theatre. She portrays a young woman who’s a blinding force of nature amid Wheeler’s world. Minnie is brash, outspoken and used to somehow getting her own way in every situation. She’s an attractive, perky, sensual being, and young, which attracts this man suffering from his own midlife crisis.
Company members Sally Murphy and Caroline Neff infuse their usual charisma and talent in the roles of Margaret and Anita. Margaret, married to Paul for several years, was an old college friend of Wheeler’s. She and Paul know this guy inside and out and can see right through his snarky comebacks and waffling ways. In one scene, Ms. Murphy, charming as usual, finally unleashes her anger at Wheeler for the callous way he’s treated Jules; this is the talented actress’ best moment. Caroline Neff, who’s never disappointed in any role she’s played, is perfection once again. As Anita, she plays a young, educated woman trying to assess her interests and talents, while biding her time working the counter at Michael’s camera shop. She and Wheeler enjoy a friendly, but professional relationship. However, when his life appears to once again be spiraling downward, Wheeler takes his anger out on Michael. He violently lashes out at his perverted boss after Michael, played with unrestrained debauchery by Troy West, makes yet another vile, chauvinistic remark about Anita. This proves to be the final straw for both Wheeler and Anita.
Dexter Bullard, an artist known for his work directing other plays by Tracy Letts, most recently left his mark at Steppenwolf with his brilliant production of “The Flick.” Once again he expertly guides his cast, this time in a ferocious comedy, and inspires them to create honest, sincere characters involved in playful, ribald humor and biting, confrontational drama. The action is smooth, continual and flows seamlessly from one scene to next. This play, which is filled with adult language, situations and nudity, isn’t so much a story as it is a character study. The play realistically examines a smart, middle-aged man, who continually makes the same mistakes, but never learns from them. And, by the final curtain, we once again see Wheeler as a man who’s starting over.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 30-May 28 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by them at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.