By: Paulanne Simmons
May 7, 2022: The Minutes, Tracy Letts’s new play about an unwelcome revelation at a small-town City Council meeting, might have been a comic masterpiece or a tragic comment on our national delusions. But Letts decided to make his play a little of both. And in the end, the comic beginning, despite hints strewn throughout, does not emotionally prepare us for the bitter ending. This is both the play’s strength and its weakness.
Mr. Peel (Noah Reid) has just returned to the Big Cherry’s City Council after a ten-day absence caused by his mother’s sudden death. He’s newly elected and childishly eager to make friends and make a difference. He supports Mr. Hanratty’s (Danny McCarthy) plans for a beautiful fountain that would be accessible to the handicapped. He’s not so sure about Mr. Blake’s (K. Todd Freeman) plans for a “Lincoln Smackdown.”
Most of us have never attended a City Council meeting, but anyone who’s been in a coop board or a college faculty meeting will surely recognize Mr. Oldfield’s (Austin Pendleton) doddering affection for the past, Ms. Innes’s (Blair Brown) oblivious insistence on being heard and Mr. Assalone’s (Jeff Still) obsession with the pronunciation of his name. Letts is a wonderful observer of human nature with a fine sense of the ridiculous. And director Anna D. Shapiro keeps the one-liners tumbling after each other.
Peel listens to Ms. Innes’s rambling speech about the upcoming November festival, a Big Cherry tradition. He does not comment on Mr. Oldfield’s complaints about how far he must walk from his parking space. He watches the group’s silly ceremonial reenactment of Big Cherry’s founding story of the white man’s triumph over Indian savagery without flinching. But he can’t understand why there are no minutes to the meeting he’s missed. This is especially vexing because one of the Council members, Mr. Carp (Ian Barford) has been mysteriously sent packing.
At last Peel succeeds in having the minutes read. And here the comedy ends. Only we’re more than halfway through the play.
At first it seems all Carp was guilty of was uncovering a scam concerning confiscated bicycles sold on eBay. But soon the minutes reveal something much darker. The real cover up touches on what actually happened on that fateful day deep in Big Cherry’s past, something savage, racist, shameful. And, Letts hopes, shocking.
Much of the power in this volta is based on the element of surprise. The self-interest of the Council members, ridiculous before, now becomes ominous. And it almost works. Except that for anyone with the most cursory understanding of American history, or anyone who’s been paying attention to the Council members’ reenactment, the founding story has already been dismissed as untrue.
Thus, Letts violates a basic rule for playwrights: never underestimate your audience. Perhaps even more important, just as Letts has the comedy go on too long, he now refuses to end the play with the knockout punch. Instead, he keeps on pounding away, making the play into first, a too-obvious parable of the American right and then, some kind of mystical ritual.
One can’t help but wish Letts would get off his grandstand.
The Minutes’ fine-tuned ensemble acting turns everyday conversation into an art. The Council members sit in a City Hall scenic designer David Zinn has made so generic and detailed anyone could imagine it in their hometown. This is America, the play screams. But sometimes, you make more of an impression with a whisper.
Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., NYC.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. $39—$249. www.telecharge.com.
Photography: Jeremy Daniel