Tracy Letts’s new work centers on “a modern misanthrope” whose journey doesn’t give us much to root for.
The central character of Tracy Letts’s latest is a 50ish dude at the tail end of a long, tough divorce. We meet Wheeler (Ian Barford) at the top of the show as he’s moving into his own new apartment after living for some time in his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s garage; helping him move boxes is longtime friend Paul (Tim Hopper), who already has a woman in mind to set him up with. But Wheeler already has his eye on a much-younger new coworker, and he’s about to meet a precariously vulnerable new neighbor who will also catch his eye.
Wheeler and Paul’s opening dialogue positions them as middle-aged analogues of the characters in High Fidelity, riffing on the hotness of the screen actor Ali MacGraw in various roles that all hit theaters before they hit puberty. But Paul, a college pal who’s long been married to Margaret (Sally Murphy), a classmate whom Wheeler dated first, ropes Wheeler into a blind date with Jules (Cora Vander Broek), Margaret’s former “life coach”—a profession that Wheeler predictably and dickishly writes off as fake. Yet as Wheeler flails his way through rejecting commitment with Jules in favor of what he sees as a total reboot with Minnie (Kahyun Kim), it’s clear Wheeler could use some outside guidance.
Letts doesn’t necessarily want us to sympathize with Wheeler as he rolls destructively through this minefield, I don’t think. But he also seems to want us to root for Wheeler’s redemption—which, to make a comparison I imagine Letts would hate, feels like rooting for the toxic Violet Weston to prevail in his Pulitzer Prize winner August: Osage County. Thrashing toward decency in the play’s final moments, Wheeler gets a snapshot of his old self, and a shot at forgiveness of his selfish ways that doesn’t feel totally earned.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Tracy Letts. Directed by Dexter Bullard. With Ian Barford, Tim Hopper, Kahyun Kim, Sally Murphy, Caroline Neff, Cora Vander Broek, Troy West. Running time: 2hrs 50mins; one intermission.