IIs there anything more American than a city council meeting? It’s apple pie, baseball, and sales taxes all tied up in a starry, striped civic virtue. The special encounters that unfold, in real time, in The Minutes, flow from playwright Tracy Letts’ brutal imagination. So there’s no prize for guessing that this session will include more ferocious business than the debate over plans for the annual harvest festival.
Our guide for the evening is Mr. Peel (Noah Reid of Schitt’s Creek), a pediatric dentist and a new elector. He is also, significantly, a breadwinner, brought to this particular little town, Big Cherry, by his wife. Mr. Peel had to miss the last council meeting – he left town to attend his mother’s funeral – and he entered this one a little confused. Where’s his friend Mr Carp? And why was the previous minute not shared? But no one spoke. Not Mayor Letts Superba, not Jessie Mueller’s employee, not the other members.
In the long run, The Minutes, is boring, which Letts apparently intended as a feature, not a bug. Because the wheels of democracy – as anyone who’s been stuck with a C-Span for more than a few minutes can attest – tends to roll slowly, when they’re not stuck in the mud. At a hyperlocal level, it involves a lot of speech, ticking boxes, procedure after procedure. There are jokes, of course, although some of them seem pretty tiring. Many sacrificed the council’s most senior member, a coward played by the beloved Austin Pendleton. Here’s one of them: the character’s name is Mr Oldfield. There’s no need to hold back laughter. And in truth, the show is never boring, partly because Anna D Shapiro, the outgoing artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre, has a true blue acumen to pinpoint the talent of her cast, most of whom are Steppenwolf veterans, who squeeze blood and plasma out of every motion and vote. .
Yet even in a bland first half, hints of something darker persist. A thunderstorm rages outside. High school football team? They are called the Savages. And this session is a closed session. Why? What happened at the last board meeting will of course be revealed later. (Too many unAmerican mysteries. And the title itself holds the solution.) But even this revelation is largely unimportant.
That’s because Letts positioned The Minutes as an allegory – a nuance of The Crucible or The Lottery or Enemy of the People. The previous drama, August Osage County, explored American life through the microcosm of a dysfunctional family, The Minutes to the macro, exploring America’s basic myths through a fairly functional local government. The American experiment, Letts suggests, is the devil’s bid, one that pushes the last moment in a literal direction. (Those moments also show why Armie Hammer, the real Mr. Peel, accused by many women of sexual misconduct, was replaced by Reid, who exudes incredible integrity.)
The argument Letts rehearses here might feel fresher had the play opened in 2020 as planned. But the desire to give up Plymouth Rock, expose Manifest Destiny as a justification for genocide, and an equally strong desire to cling to these myths – seen in the ill-faith attacks on critical race theory, frantic book-ban attempts – have since become daily life. news.
It’s an argument that left-leaning Broadway audiences will find sympathetic, especially when delivered in the comfortable, expensive theatrical setting by a predominantly white and mostly male cast. That is to see that there is a more radical way of Letts’ argument and a more radical way of staging it. Play, like any democratic system, is by the people and for the people. But it very rarely covers everyone.