Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of August: Osage County, continues to surprise by demonstrating his range with new genres and new departures. His latest play The Minutes, a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 2018, which takes on America’s political and social institutions, begins as a comedy, segues into a drama, then becomes a mystery and ultimately is a horror story. Conceived and written mostly before the 2016 election, not only is The Minutes a powerful and shocking play but it also has a good deal to say about how America lives now.
Its high-powered cast includes Tony Award-winners Blair Brown, Jessie Mueller and, for the first time appearing in one of his own plays, Tracy Letts himself. Staged by Anna D. Shapiro, the Tony Award-winning director of Letts’ August: Osage County and artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company where the play premiered in 2017, The Minutes also includes Steppenwolf company members Ian Barford, Cliff Chamberlain, K. Todd Freeman, Austin Pendleton and Jeff Still, as well as author Letts.
David Zinn’s realistic and elaborate set puts us right in the city council meeting room in the town of Big Cherry, somewhere in the Midwest. Mr. Peel has missed the last meeting due to the death of his mother. After the greetings and condolences, no one can tell him what happened at the last meeting. Nor is member Mr. Carp anywhere to be seen, but he is told that Mr. Carp’s tenure on the council was terminated last week. But where are the minutes of that meeting of October 23 which have for the first time not been distributed to vote on. What is the secret that all appear to be hiding?
The Minutes begins as high satire with sarcastic remarks about disabled people and people living in poverty. Then there is the hint of corruption, nepotism and self-aggrandizement. Ultimately there is the question of the town’s history. Tracy Letts is taking on America’s ability to delude itself into rewriting the unpleasant facts of its past. Under Shapiro’s astute direction, the play changes genres fairly regularly but remarkably the tone remains consistent. And like a good old-fashioned horror story which is what the play eventually becomes, periodic thunder (by sound designer André Pluess) and lightning (by lighting designer Brian MacDevitt) as well as the temporary sudden blackouts add to the growing sense that something is not right.
The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent in roles that could have easily been generic as each name is a character type: Ian Barford’s Mr. Carp is the fault-finding one, Blair Brown’s Ms. Innes is the self-involved council person, Austin Pendleton’s Mr. Oldfield is almost senile, Noah Reid’s Mr. Peel wants to remove the layers to find the truth, Cliff Chamberlain’s golf-playing Mr. Breeding appears to be to-the-manor-born, Sally Murphy’s awkward Ms. Matz is a klutz. K. Todd Freeman’s blandly named Mr. Blake is the only person of color on the council and desperately wants to be accepted by the others. Danny McCarthy’s Mr. Hanratty like his name is an attacker who fights to get his way.
Jeff Still’s Mr. Assalone has to contend with his name being mispronounced as “ass–alone” rather than his preferred pronunciation of “ass-a–lone–e.” Jessie Mueller’s Ms. Johnson, the town council clerk, may be named after Samuel Johnson whose biographer Boswell followed him around and took notes on everything he did, while Mr. Letts’ suave Mayor Superba has had the job for 16 years and all look up to him. He also gives the mayor a sinister slant which prepares us for the shocking ending. Quite a collection although all recognizable. Ana Kuzmanić’s costumes immediately define each character as to how they wish to be perceived.
Tracy Letts’ The Minutes is both a fine political comedy as well as an indictment of how most Americans live today. It ultimately asks us to look at our values as well as our connection to the society around us. It will not make you so much as talk about it after you have seen it, but ask yourself if the indictment includes you. Continuing her connection to playwright Tracy Letts which began with August: Osage County in 2007, director Anna D. Shapiro adds another excellent contemporary play to her resumé.
The Minutes (April 2 – July 24, 2022)
Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.theminutesbroadway.com
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission