When you walk into Studio 54 for “The Minutes,” you see a cavernous room on stage, featuring a white rotunda ceiling, a line of plush chairs and conference tables with microphones attached. It seems like a scene ripped straight from C-SPAN, but it’s actually a city council meeting room for the fictional town of Big Cherry.
As “The Minutes” progresses, look closely, past the civically generic trappings of the American flag and mural of Lady Liberty. You’ll see brown water stains, seeping through the white ceiling and running down the white-plastered walls. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: Something is rotten in the town of Big Cherry.
“The Minutes,” the newest comedy from Tony Award-winning playwright Tracy Letts (who also stars in the play as Mayor Superba) begins with what should be a routine city council meeting, except new council member Mr. Peel (played by Noah Reid) missed the previous week’s meeting (where one of the council members, Mr. Carp suddenly stepped down) and no one will tell him why or what happened.
The mystery of that hangs throughout “The Minutes,” cutting through the mundane proceedings and proposals about parking regulations and whether Big Cherry should install accessibility ramps for the disabled. It would all feel mind-numbing if not for the team at “The Minutes.” The stylish production (cleverly realized by set designer David Zinn) is directed by Anna D. Shapiro, who keeps the dialogue zipping while maintaining an undercurrent of dread throughout.
What Letts gets right is how in bureaucracy, everything becomes so dulled by process and jargon that even the most shocking revelation is sandpapered into background noise. He maintains both the comedy and the tension skilfully in his script, with help from some booming sound effects (from sound designer Andre Pluess) and the foreboding flickering lights (from lighting designer Brian MacDevitt).
When “The Minutes” finally comes to a head, the audience is rapt — never has so much drama been wrung from the reading of meeting minutes.
Since the play is set up as somewhat of a satire, the cast portrays political archetypes: the passionate newcomer Peel, the dispassionate paper pusher Ms. Johnson (played by an underused Jessie Mueller), and lifelong (and out of touch) civil servant Mr. Oldfield (a name that is inelegantly on-the-nose, played by a comically sharp Austin Pendleton). As the idealistic Peel, who is the audience’s viewpoint character, Reid is bland, disappearing into the sprawling cast when he should be pulling focus throughout. As Mayor Superba (another on-the-nose name), Letts is the perfect mix of affable and quietly sinister.
Unfortunately, “The Minutes” is mostly concerned with the interplay between the white men at its center. The women are relegated to broad comic relief or helpers, which is a waste of the skills of Mueller, Blair Brown and Sally Murphy (whose attempts at physical humor as the manic and confounding Ms. Matz mostly fall flat).
It’s impossible to talk about what doesn’t quite work about “The Minutes” without mentioning the play’s eventual revelation of what happened to Carp. It is a stirring and powerful scene led by Ian Barford (as Carp), whose presence gives the play a lightning bolt of energy.
When faced with that revelation about the true history of their small town, the council members have the choice to reckon with it or ignore it. What they choose to do is not surprising if you’ve been following the fear-mongering around critical race theory, the fights currently breaking out in school board meetings everywhere or the passage of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida.
The script has the potential to be painfully relevant, but Letts stops short of fully interrogating each character’s response. It’s a shame, especially since “The Minutes,” with its predominantly white, male cast, is close to being a searing exploration of white identity similar to Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” And it should be: If you are going to critique how American history is taught, comment on Manifest Destiny and remark on the Civil War and Native Americans, not mentioning race is a glaring omission. Instead of truly reckoning with that bloody legacy, Letts chooses to pull his punches.
It is also unfortunate that “The Minutes,” which spends an uncomfortable amount of time making jokes about disabled people and Native Americans, does not give space on stage to people from either background.
Though the play ends on a gruesome note that is meant to be terrifying, the monsters on the stage at Studio 54 are tame (and quaint) in comparison to the real-life ones currently haunting school boards, local governments and Fox News.
“The Minutes” opened at Studio 54 on April 17, 2022.
Creative: Written by Tracy Letts; Original Music by André Pluess; Directed by Anna D. Shapiro; Choreographed by Ty DeFoe; Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Ana Kuzmanic; Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design by André Pluess.
Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Rebecca Gold, Carl Moellenberg, Spencer Ross, Louise L. Gund, Elizabeth Armstrong, Blakeman Entertainment, HornosBerger, Across the River Productions, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley/Leah Lane, Jayne Baron Sherman, Kathleen K. Johnson, Emily Dobbs, Robert Flicker, Jacob Soroken Porter, The Shubert Organization and Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Cast: Ian Barford, Blair Brown, Cliff Chamberlain, K. Todd Freeman, Tracy Letts, Danny McCarthy, Jessie Mueller, Sally Murphy, Austin Pendleton, Noah Reid and Jeff Still.