Tracy Letts’ The Minutes would be one of the most thrilling new plays on Broadway this season even if recent real-life events hadn’t made it seem as uncanny as it is funny and, ultimately, disarming. The Minutes – there are a brisk 90 of them in all – begins as one thing and ends up quite another, and every step along the way is so finely rendered that we’re too busy savoring the moment to see what’s waiting just ahead.
Featuring an impeccable cast headed by Noah Reid – the Schitt’s Creek star makes a wonderful Broadway debut here – The Minutes reunites playwright and cast member Letts with his August: Osage County director Anna D. Shapiro, and together they find once again the eccentric, perfect balance of laugh-out-loud humor, dark undercurrents and emotional violence that made the prize-winning August unforgettable.
If the new play, opening tonight at Broadway’s Studio 54, doesn’t have the widely relatable, if curdled, domesticity of August, it is nonetheless charged with the shock of truth, both in its dead-on depiction of bureaucratic, any-town pettiness, personal greed and the larger delusions at the dark heart of American history. And you won’t even see it coming.
The play – a comedy, a mystery, an allegory – unfolds entirely in real time at a city council meeting of Big Cherry, a small town that could be anywhere shy of the Twilight Zone (or maybe not so shy). David Zinn’s remarkable set – a detail-perfect recreation of homey but generic government chambers that pretend to grandeur while rather smugly displaying the paper plate jack-o’-lanterns of local schoolchildren. The Big Cherry City Council still opens its closed-door meetings with prayers and pledges of allegiance.
Well, at least sometimes. What, exactly, transpired at the previous week’s meeting is something of a mystery, at least to the idealistic newcomer Mr. Peel (Reid, putting the good will stockpiled from his Schitt’s Creek tenure to excellent effect). Peel was absent from the last meeting due to a death in his family, and his at-first casual, then determined efforts to find out what exactly transpired – specifically, why has council member Mr. Carp suddenly gone missing? – spins The Minutes from quirky workplace comedy to increasingly dire mystery.
And what a workplace. The Big Cherry City Council is loaded with enough strangely-named characters to fuel any number of sitcoms. Letts himself plays Mayor Superba, the stalwart, vaguely congenial leader who quickly cuts off any discussion that veers too closely to certain events; Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy), an enlightened do-gooder who dreams of spearheading a new, handicapped-accessible town monument that’s outrageously disproportionate to small-town needs; Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman), the sole Black official who knows all too well how to protect himself, even when championing a ludicrous festival attraction involving a martial arts-trained Abraham Lincoln; Ms. Innes (Blair Brown), the flinty, bloviating grande dame; Mr. Oldfield (a hilarious Austin Pendleton), the council elder whose disagreeability is equaled by his confusion; Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy), the nervous ditz; Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), the bullying second-in-charge; Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still), the corrupt brother of the local sheriff; and Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller), the efficient city clerk whose good sense and suggestion of ethics gives the suspicious Peel cause for optimism.
As the routine business of a city council meeting unfolds, with all its backstabbing, personal agendas, pet peeves and unstated histories on full comic display, the mystery of the missing Mr. Carp slowly reveals itself. Mr. Carp (played by Letts veteran Ian Barford, in flashback), had raised the issue of a wave of bike thefts, and, more specifically, where all the money raised from the auction of the recovered bikes was going. It seems the gruff Mr. Assalone and his (unseen) sheriff brother have some explaining to do.
But just when we think the mystery has no larger ramifications than run-of-the-mill graft and corruption, Mr. Carp reveals that his investigation has steered him to something much, much darker, leading him to the very roots of Big Cherry’s founding. Even the town’s name, initially played for laughs, is an offense.
Without spoiling what, exactly, Mr. Carp has discovered, it’s fair to say The Minutes will seem entirely prescient to recent events in Florida and Texas, where the teaching of history – or, more accurately, the burying of history – has made headlines. When Steppenwolf Theatre Company debuted the play in Chicago in 2017, the content must surely have seemed more out-of-the-realm fantastical, if no more powerful, than it does now.
It’s also fair to see, without giving away a truly disturbing ending, that The Minutes lifts itself from a satire of mundane corruption and small-town secrecy to something like an indictment of the very notion of America’s self-perception. The lightning flashes and booms of thunder that occur throughout the play – the lighting design is by Brian MacDevitt, sound design and original music by André Pluess – serve to illuminate and disguise, as needed, lending The Minutes an unsettling, eerie and ominous mood from the get-go.
Still, nothing in the play prepares us for the Rod Serling strangeness that brings The Minutes to its close. It’s quite likely that audiences will be divided over it, which seems entirely fitting given the real-life scenes playing out at school board and local government meetings these days. History never really dies, even if it occasionally goes missing.