The Broadway Review: The Minutes
I should have known had I really looked at the poster art on the marquee of Studio 54 for Broadway’s The Minutes, what this superb piece of writing by the fantastically gifted playwright and actor, Tracey Letts (Mary Page Marlowe; August: Osage County; Man From Nebraska) was aiming itself at. But walking in, I did not. Which, once again is a god-sent, if you ask me. Letts not only wrote this fascinating play but also takes somewhat center stage playing Mayor Superba, head honcho at this small town city council meeting where the play all takes place, and makes his mark in the dynamics as black and blood red as humanly possible. Don’t take that too literally, because the play itself, wrapped in sharp situational wit and humor, isn’t some obvious thread, but a much slyer tumultuous experience. Letts isn’t going to let you see what’s there, right before our eyes, until he wants you too. And even then, you’ll have to do some processing to decide how you see it all went down. He might tease us all with the interior concepts and ideals that will be unmasked, but don’t get too comfortable thinking this is going to be straight forward.
It’s a dark and stormy evening in Big Cherry, the town at the center of the play. Naturally, the name of the town, and really everyone in this well formulated play has an undercurrent of meaning, but it is on that night when a dozen or so elected members float in, one by one, for its weekly city council meeting to discuss all that is on the list to discuss when things really do get messy. It’s a pretty simple set-up though, almost to the bitter twisted end, give or take. Stolen bikes are discussed, as well as a major redesign of the town park, with the center piece being a statue commemorating the history of the town itself. With a wild little reinactment thrown in for some fun (or is it just for fun?), the seats are filled by these town representatives, and a series of events within the meeting start to unfold as they should, as planned, at least for the time being.
All pretty dull stuff, you might say and you wouldn’t be all that incorrect, as Lett’s doesn’t shy away from the minutia of the meeting’s moments. But its clear he has some bigger fish to fry, but the groundwork needs to be laid out and the players need to make sure their masks are in place before we can really do the deep dive. There is tension in the room though, and it all sits around the one big question of the night, a question that floats up high in that well crafted space impeccably designed by David Zinn (Broadway’s Funny Girl). That one question is asked at first casually by a naive freshman to the group, a Mr. Peel, at the beginning of the night. He asks it to the overworked, very dehydrated town clerk, a Ms. Johnson, played simply and most fascinatingly by the very-on-her-game Jessie Mueller (Broadway’s Waitress; Carousel). You see, he missed last week’s meeting because of his mother’s burial, so he’s curious, as he heard some chatter in the parking lot. Yet no one seems to want to tell him what went down. Odd, cause something must have, you see, or the dismissals wouldn’t be so blunt nor the answers so so vague. And a vacant seat in the half-circle of seated officials keeps pushing the question forward, and reminding us that it needs to be answered.
Perfectly portrayed by the engaging Noah Reid of “Schitt’s Creek” fame, Mr. Peel just can’t seem to get a straight answer as to why one of the elected members of the city council isn’t present for this week’s meeting. Peel, a seemingly good-natured friendly man, albeit an outsider, can’t seem to get all of those frustrating non-answers out of his curious brain. And with each time he asks the question, his tension escalates, as does ours. Questions start to pile up on top of one another. Why isn’t his question being answered? He can’t even get an answer from the clerk whose responsibilities include recording each meeting’s minutes. Yet, where are those minutes? And why can’t he read them?
Buried deep in the tedious process of how these meetings run, the grandstanding trudges forward almost unapologetically dull in its tight structuring, but it is also utterly captivating in its combustible energy-building. We can’t help but study Mr. Peel, as he goes from a slow annoyed sizzle to a fierce boil, all the while we watch in amazement as both Austin Pendleton (Wheelhouse’s Life Sucks) as the elder statesman, Mr. Oldfield, find the ridiculous pettiness of his moment in the town spotlight, alongside Blair Brown’s (Broadway’s Copenhagen; 2ST’s On the Shores…) sneaky turn as another long-serving member, Ms. Innes who has a few words to say that have greater meaning when looking backward. The cast at hand; the wonderful Sally Murphy (Broadway’s Linda Vista) as oddball Ms. Matz, Cliff Chamberlain (Broadway’s Superior Donuts) as Mr. Breeding, K. Todd Freeman (NT/Steppenwolf’s Downstate) as Mr. Blake, Danny McCarthy (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh) as Mr. Hanratty, Jeff Still (Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird) as Mr. Assalone, and Ian Barford (Broadway’s Curious Incident…) as Mr. Carp, all find their clever magic and deliver the required remarks with aplomb. They keep us at arm’s length, mired down in the mud, but never letting us fall too far from the building tension. It’s a most incredible balancing act, one that isn’t so apparent within, until we start looking back.
With the cracks of lighting and thunder booming up above in the heavens, the lights within this cavernous space flicker on and off, as if some god up above is super angry with this town, courtesy of lighting designer, Brian MacDevitt (Broadway’s The Music Man), with straight forward costuming by Ana Kuzmanić (Broadway’s August: Osage County) and a smashing sound design by André Pluess (Broadway’s I Am My Own Wife) who is also credited with the original music composition. It seems this god might be on the right track regarding these seven men and three women, all of them white, who have assembled for the ‘greater good’, while Letts slyly really doesn’t let us in on what he has in store for us.
It’s clear that something happened, no matter how hard everyone tries to say there is nothing here to see. Letts’ mayor would just like us all to keep moving forward, to not look too deep, and definitely not look in the rearview mirror. And so would everyone else. Yet, still, why is there an empty seat? And why are the minutes of last week’s meeting unavailable for review? Mueller’s Ms. Johnson, who seems to be very fastidious in this otherwise circus of a meeting, just isn’t telling, and everyone else keeps trying to make Mr. Peel feel like he is the crazy one in the room. That is until the clerk throws Mr. Peel a worm, to see if he’s paying attention and aware enough to take the bait.
It’s the sharpness of the mundane that really shines bright in this Steppenwolf production directed tightly with ease by Anna D. Shapiro (Broadway’s Straight White Men). The production makes it clear that there is something horrendously wrong hiding in the wings, just waiting for its moment to stomp out and present itself, but the references build slowly. When it finally does, thanks to some wry signaling from Ms. Johnson to Mr. Peel, those unavailable minutes are unearthed, much like the town’s history, and in that unveiling, with a flicker of lighting to help guide the way, the play is forced forward to a much higher and deeper level than before, filling the space with abstractionisms and history that are far more smartly realized than we ever saw coming.
Working once again with choreographer/movement director Ty Defoe (Mother Road; Broadway’s Straight White Men), Shapiro finds her force in the darkly cunning openings that are unpacked in the reading and the actualization of all those minutes, that history, and the stories we tell in order to give us a better night’s sleep, and that’s about all I’ll say about it. This is definitely one of those plays that lives its strongest self the more it unravels before your unknowing eyes. The Minutes does its due diligence duty, asking all the big questions of the day and century, without letting anyone off the proverbial hook. It’s ever so political, while finding humor and bite in the unmasking of the everyday workings of American democracy in action. Don’t worry about what exactly Letts is set to attack from within that meeting. It will be as surprising and thought-provoking as it was for me the night I was lucky enough to see this new Broadway play. Then look at the play’s artwork once you leave the theatre, and be amazed. It’s all so clear and undeniable. The Minutes feels smarter and sharply stranger the more you try to unpack and understand it. But that’s more than half of the game and all of the pleasure found in this town hall meeting.