Ian Barford and Caroline Neff Credit: Michael Brosilow

My theory? The people who’ve known Tracy Letts longest know him the least. I mean those of us who remember the enfant-terrible days of Killer Joe and Bug, the former a rude jest about a murder-for-hire scheme gone very wrong, the latter a skin crawler about codependency gone very, very, very wrong. Together with his Oklahoma roots, the two plays conveyed an impression of Letts as a postpunk cowboy avant-gardist a la Sam Shepard—the sort you can picture getting into a bar fight over somethin’ bad somebody said about Rimbaud. Killer Joe, in particular, gave Letts significant street cred in London, where he was adopted as an American cousin of theatrical bomb throwers like Martin McDonagh and Sarah Kane.

The consequence has been chronic disappointment whenever Letts shows up with a new play that fails to conform to expectation, which has turned out to be always. The problem only got more complicated when he won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his ambitious family drama, August: Osage County, simultaneously cementing his status as a major American playwright and confirming to his old fans the betrayal of everything they thought he stood for. (Want to see the syndrome at work? Read the recent pair of pieces by Reader contributor Christopher Piatt, taking Letts gleefully to task, first, for the awfulness of the CBS sitcom based on his Superior Donuts, and then for what Piatt sees as his faux-righteous stand against the Jeff Awards committee.)

The thing is, Letts was never quite the edge dweller those early plays made him out to be. Looking back over his output since Killer Joe appeared in 1993, it seems clear that he’s in fact an exceptionally talented, extremely canny, extraordinarily craftsmanlike conventional playwright, whose zest for the cruel joke was initially misconstrued as iconoclasm. Forget Shepard. The nearest aesthetic equivalent to Letts is really that other endearingly mean snot of a storyteller, Louis C.K.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Letts’s latest, Linda Vista, getting an engaging world premiere now at Steppenwolf Theatre, under the makes-170-minutes-feel-like-30 direction of Dexter Bullard.

Linda Vista is the tale of Wheeler (Ian Barford), a career curmudgeon remarkably similar to Rob Gordon—the misfit audiophile played by John Cusack in High Fidelity—but, crucially, older. Formerly a photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times, the 50-year-old Wheeler is now the darkest thing in sunny San Diego, working as a camera repairman in a store owned by a logorrheic creep named Michael (Troy West, making you want to get deloused). We first see Wheeler moving his plastic milk crates full of vinyl LPs into a new apartment, having just come off a bad stretch sleeping on a cot in his estranged wife’s garage.

At least one reason for the failed marriage is quickly apparent. Like Cusack’s Gordon, Wheeler is a cultural snob, proud of his uncompromised if rather easy idiosyncrasy: abhoring Alanis Morrisette and karaoke, loving Miles and Ella, distinguishing between the Goodbye, Columbus and Convoy Ali McGraws. His social critique includes an attack on loyalty (“Loyalty to people is how you end up camping with Hitler”) and, of course, the political middle ground (“Where is this ground in the middle? These people are so fucking stupid they think human beings walked around with dinosaurs”).

Skilled misanthrope though he is, Wheeler has somehow retained the friendship of old school chums Paul and Margaret (Tim Hopper and Sally Murphy), who introduce him to middle-aged life coach Jules at, yes, a karaoke bar. The problem with Jules as a romantic prospect is that she’s too hard to reject. As played by Cora Vander Broek, she’s collected her share of quirks over the decades, as people will do, but she’s got some sweet virtues too. She’s complicated, in short, like a grown-up. Wheeler spends much of Linda Vista squirming on the hook of the new maturity Jules demands, resisting it by means both ingenious and stunningly vicious before taking an unexpected route to something like liberation.

Letts peppers the narrative with a delightfully bitter wit, some of it originating in Wheeler, some of it not. Some of it smooth and some serrated. All of it tending, ultimately, to much more than yuks, as a sly Louis C.K. monologue might do. (Interestingly, they’re about the same age.) Having watched Letts for decades now, seeing him take on his personas, from the Rimbaud cowboy of Killer Joe to the plains O’Neill of August, this is the one that feels truest. And it’s resulted in a successful, satisfying play. Ironically, a mature work.  v