“Democracy’s messy,” the mayor, portrayed by Tracy Letts, says to the newest member of the Big Cherry City Council, Mr. Peel (Noah Reid.) But messy is too mild a word for the goings-on in “The Minutes,” opening tonight on Broadway. On the surface, Letts’ new play simply presents a weekly meeting of the city council of a small American town. But “The Minutes” manages to be both a hilarious satire, and a harsh history lesson that’s indistinguishable from a horror story.
As the play begins, Mr. Peel has been away in California to attend his mother’s funeral, and so had missed the previous week’s meeting of the city council. A newcomer to the town, Peel (we never learn anybody’s first name) is affable and well-meaning. If his fellow council members seem genial enough, nobody will tell him what happened at the last meeting, and why Mr. Carp, his ally on the council, has been kicked off of it; indeed, he’s disappeared entirely.
That mystery, and Mr. Peel’s effort to uncover it, drives the main action of “The Minutes,” and leads to a stunning revelation, which I won’t spoil. Director Anna D. Shapiro heightens the atmosphere of suspense with thunder and lightning (it’s raining outside), and the flickering and occasional shutdown of the fluorescent lights inside, which only Mr. Peel seems to notice.
That last effect is part of scenic designer David Zinn’s spot-on re-creation of a typically drab legislative chamber, décor that tries but fails to suggest democratic grandeur – chintzy wood panel, worn red carpet, red-leather chairs, flags and maps, and city proclamations on the walls.
A cheesy effort at democratic grandeur is also a good description of many of the 11 characters in “The Minutes.” The cast, a starry ensemble, deliciously captures the pettiness, pomposity, self-dealing and general surreal lunacy of local politicos when they meet, with only the slightest of comic underscoring — as anybody who has attended any such meetings in real life can attest.
Mr. Blake (K Todd Freeman) is focused on lobbying for his pet project, the Lincoln Smackdown, “an opportunity for anyone to fight Honest Abe in a steel cage. We take a trained mixed martial arts fighter and dress him up as Abraham Lincoln.” Ms. Innes (Blair Brown) likes the idea. “I love Abraham Lincoln. And violence.”
Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy) doesn’t like Mr. Blake’s idea, or Mr. Blake. He has his own idea. He wants the city to rip down the old fountain near City Hall and build an elaborate and expensive new one, with a grand statue of the town’s historic hero at its center, and make it accessible “so that my sister, or any other soul confined to the use of a wheelchair, can reach the fountain and see the bottom of it.”
“There’s nothing so interesting about the bottom of it,” Mr. Oldfield interjects.
“You could just show her a picture,” Ms. Innes adds.
The dim Mr. Oldfield (a priceless Austin Pendleton, who supplies many laughs), has been on the council for 39 years; he seems long ago to have lost the ability to focus on anything, unless it involves his peculiar personal needs and interests.
When Mr. Hanratty mentions in his proposal the town’s historic hero, its founder, Sergeant Otto Pym, Mr. Peel admits he doesn’t know who he is. Shocked, the rest of the council members suddenly re-enacts the story of the town’s founding, a recounting of something called the Battle at Mackie Creek that serves as a weird comic digression from the by-the-book City Council meeting.
The last ten minutes of “The Minutes” swerve far from comedy, and the ending is very far from realism, an abrupt twist into horror that some will feel packs a powerful punch; others will just feel sucker punched. I’m more in the first camp. Letts has arguably prepared us with subtle little jabs throughout the play. For example, the high school football team that the mayor and presumably the rest of the townsfolk are so obsessed with (a la Friday Night Lights), is named the Savages.
“The Minutes” was the last play I saw on Broadway before the pandemic shut down all productions in March, 2020. Mr. Peel was then portrayed by Armie Hammer. In a semi-surreal development, he, like Mr. Carp, disappeared, although we know why: He dropped out after he was accused of sexual assault and of having fantasies about cannibalism. His replacement, Noah Reid, who is making his Broadway debut, and who is best known for his role as Patrick Brewer in “Schitt’s Creek,” makes a fine everyman, an exemplar of decency.
The play, first produced at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2017, seemed to me in 2020 primarily an allegory for national politics during the Trump administration, and, secondarily, as Lett’s way of commenting on the myths (lies) of American history, especially concerning the treatment of Native Americans (which he also expressed in his Pulitzer Prize winning play “August: Osage County”)
Two years later, the attempted suppression of facts and history in school systems throughout America is in the headlines. Letts has changed the script so that the Big Cherry City Council now passes a resolution mandating the teaching of historical lies about the town in its schools, but the suppression of history was always a subject of this play. “History is a verb,” the mayor said ominously in 2020 as in 2022; it’s less enigmatic this time around.
What is happening in local city councils, school boards, libraries, and state legislatures – the book banning, curriculum censorship, voter suppression, the passage of blatantly unconstitutional culture war laws — has made Letts’ play feel less like allegory and more like a prescient dramatization, if one filtered through the playwright’s imagination, sense of humor and sense of outrage.
At Studio 54 through July 24, 2022
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $49-$249 ($35 rush and lottery)
Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Scenic design by David Zinn, costume design by Ana Kuzmanić, lighting design by Brian MacDevitt, sound design and original music by André Pluess, hair and wig design by Tom Watson, choreography by Ty Defoe, dramaturgy by Edward Sobel
Cast: Ian Barford, Blair Brown, Cliff Chamberlain, K. Todd Freeman, Tracy Letts, Danny McCarthy, Jessie Mueller, Sally Murphy, Austin Pendleton, Noah Reid, Jeff Still.
Photographs by Jeremy Daniel