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Think He’s a Jerk? Then He’s Doing His Job

None of his behavior was horrible, he said, “not like, horrible horrible,” but he noticed that the sex ultimately made him feel worse. So he went to therapy, he moved back to Chicago, he started dating Shapiro. He figured it out.

“He’s not Wheeler anymore,” Shapiro said, speaking by telephone from their home in Chicago.

Characters like Wheeler aren’t exactly rare. From Agamemnon and Oedipus on out, the stage is strewn with middle-aged men who are the smartest guys in the room except when it comes to self-knowledge — think of Hamlet, Othello, Faust, Peer Gynt, Arthur Miller’s heroes. Women are the collateral damage.

If “Linda Vista” has been recalibrated since Chicago — the women’s parts have thickened, Wheeler’s monologues have thinned — it still participates, enthusiastically, in this tradition. Is another Broadway play intently focused on male frustrations and anxieties a solution or part of the problem? Is this a story we need?

“I think we need all the stories,” Letts told me. “I don’t think there’s any story we don’t need.” Middle-aged men come to the show, he said, “and they are laid low by it. They come out at the end and they are weeping because it speaks to things that are going on in their lives — malaise, depression, deep sadness.” The play models how toxic masculinity hurts men, too, and how change is possible.

Barford doesn’t want to tell anyone — man, woman, child (well, not his 10-year-old twins, who are barred from seeing the show, as is his mother) — what to think about the play or how to feel about Wheeler.

But he hopes that people will see the character as human, as hurting, as capable of redemption. Barford changed; he thinks Wheeler can, too. Hate him, hiss him, throw a program, but don’t give up on him.

“The play doesn’t abandon the guy,” he said. And he won’t either. “That’s just doing my job,” he said. “That’s just what’s on the page.”

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