Iis there anything more American than a city council? It’s apple pie, baseball, and sales tax, all tied together in a star-and-stripe arc of civic virtue. The particular encounter that unfolds, in real time, in The Minutes, stems from the brutal imagination of playwright Tracy Letts. So no prizes for guessing that this session will include more vicious business than debating plans for the annual harvest feast.
Our guide for the evening is Mr. Peel (Noah Reid of Schitt’s Creek), a pediatric dentist and newly elected. He is also, significantly, a newcomer, brought to this particular little town, Big Cherry, by his wife. Mr Peel must have missed the last council meeting – he left town to attend his mother’s funeral – and he walks into this one a bit confused. Where is his friend Mr Carp? And why was the previous minutes not distributed? But no one speaks. Neither Mayor Superba of Letts, nor Jessie Mueller’s employee, nor any other member.
For long stretches, The Minutes is boring, which Letts seems to want as a feature, not a bug. Because the wheels of democracy – as anyone who’s been stuck with C-Span for more than a few minutes can attest – tend to roll slowly, when they’re not getting stuck in the mud. At the hyperlocal level, this involves a lot of talking, ticking boxes, procedure for procedure. There are jokes, of course, though few of them seem particularly laborious. Many are at the expense of the longest-serving board member, a dodderer played by the beloved Austin Pendleton. Here is one: this character is called Mr. Oldfield. No need to hold for laughs. And in truth, the show is never so boring, in part because Anna D Shapiro, the outgoing artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre, has a keen eye for identifying the talents of her cast, mostly Steppenwolf veterans, who twist the blood and plasma of every motion and vote.
Yet even in the bland first half, hints of something darker linger. A storm is raging outside. The high school football team? They are called Savages. And this session is closed. Why? What happened at the last council meeting will of course be revealed later. (Too much mystery is un-American. And the title itself contains the solution.) But even that revelation is largely irrelevant.
That’s because Letts positions The Minutes as an allegory — shades of The Crucible or The Lottery or Enemy of the People. His previous play, August Osage County, explored American life through the microcosm of a dysfunctional family, The Minutes goes macro, exploring core myths of America via a fairly functional local government. The American experience, Letts suggests, is a devil’s bargain, pushed to the literal in the final moments. (These moments also point to why Armie Hammer, the original Mr. Peel, accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, was replaced by Reid, who radiates integrity.)
The arguments Letts repeats here might have sounded fresher had the play opened in 2020 as planned. But the desire to flip Plymouth Rock, exposing Manifest Destiny as justification for genocide, and the equally fierce desire to cling to those myths—seen in bad faith attacks on critical race theory, frantic attempts to book bans – have since become daily newspapers. news.
It’s a plot that a left-leaning Broadway audience will find sympathetic, especially when delivered in the laid-back environment of an expensive theater by a predominantly white, predominantly male cast. Which is to see that there are more radical ways to explain Letts’ argument and more radical ways to stage it. A play, like a democratic system, is by the people and for the people. But he so rarely includes everyone.