Anyone who has sat through a NYC community board meeting, co-op board meeting or any gathering of seemingly civic-minded folks will find much to recognize in the often-hilarious first half of Tracy Letts’ new play, “The Minutes,” now at Broadway’s Studio 54 -- after a run a few years back at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre – under Anna D. Shapiro’s taut direction.
As for its more audacious, chilling second half (the less one specifically knows what happens in it the better), let me say that I hope viewers haven’t shared the exact same experiences, or displayed the same behavior, as the residents of the fictional town of Big Cherry. Still, Letts’ well-taken points about the dangers of democracy run amok, the prevalence of financial and moral corruption in America, and the unwillingness of many White Americans to fully accept all facets of our nation’s history are not just painfully timely, but likely to feel familiar to much of the audience. Indeed, perhaps the play’s biggest failing is that it essentially preaches to the sophisticated choir.
Set in an Americana-filled City Council room (flawlessly designed by David Zinn) on a super-rainy night that keeps threatening the room’s lighting (by Brian MacDevitt), the 90-minute play spends most of its first half introducing us to the members of Big Cherry’s City Council, including the gruff Mr. Assalone (a menacing Jeff Still), the doddering if often outraged Mr. Oldfield (a scene-stealing Austin Pendleton), the medicine-addled Ms. Matz (an ultra-goofy Sally Murphy) and the quirky Ms. Innes (a wonderful Blair Brown), who talks about her rape by the town’s former mayor with a total air of nonchalance.
Also on hand are the Council’s dedicated clerk, Ms. Johnson (a fine Jessie Mueller), its leader and the town’s current mayor, the often impatient and vaguely sinister Mr. Superba (perfectly embodied by Mr. Letts), and, above all, its newest member, the ultra-earnest young pediatric dentist Mr. Peel (“Schitt’s Creek star Noah Reid, in an impressive Broadway debut), a relative newcomer to the town.
Peel, who has missed the last meeting because he was attending his mother’s funeral, is quickly perturbed because the minutes of that meeting are suspiciously not ready for distribution. He’s even more agitated why no one will tell him why a certain Mr. Carp is no longer part of the Council after last week’s meeting – a question that would obviously be answered if those minutes were available.
Letts is a smart-enough playwright to eventually provide the answer -- although more for the audience’s sake I think than Peel’s – through a very vivid flashback sequence featuring Carp (a powerful Ian Barford). And while I do think some smart theatergoers might figure out in advance (at least to some degree) what Carp said and did to cause his absence, it will likely sadden and surprise most of the audience.
Moreover, I suspect that everyone in audience will be shocked by the play’s final moments. Unfortunately, that’s because the show’s ending, while brilliantly symbolic, feels remarkably unrealistic (unlike the rest of the play) and, to my mind, unearned. Letts remains one of my favorite writers, but here, not all of the minutes of “The Minutes” are his proverbial finest hour.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Ian Barford, Blair Brown, Cliff Chamberlain, K. Todd Freeman, Noah Reid, Tracy Letts, Danny McCarthy, Jessie Mueller, Sally Murphy, Austin Pendleton, Jeff Still
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