By Stanford Friedman
History is a reliable indicator of the future, right up until the time it isn’t. Take for instance, the past work of playwright Tracy Letts. Plays like Killer Joe, August Osage County, Mary Page Marlowe and Linda Vista have chronicled the dysfunction of family life, some more violently than others, though always with a lot of heart. But his latest offering, The Minutes, is an icy opposite of what one has come to expect. While adhering to his penchant for large casts (indeed, he himself is cast in a central role), this head-scratcher is a meditation on history itself – how it can be hidden, lost, or transformed into something wholly evil. Simultaneously, the play begs the question of whether or not running gags can be delivered by characters who spend most of their time sitting down.
Lightning, that reliable indicator of impending doom, strikes repeatedly outside the hallowed halls of the city council of the town of Big Cherry. Their weekly meeting is about to begin and all members are in attendance, except for one. There’s Mr. Oldfield, the eldest, and most confused councilperson, played by the always wonderful Austin Pendleton who nearly steals the show with his deadpan pronouncements like, “I assure you I have no idea what is happening.” Not to be outdone, Blair Brown is on hand as Ms. Innes to underplay the council’s past “clashes of personalities” as well as other more felonious encounters.
Others in the roll call include include the argumentative and insensitive Mr. Breeding (a slyly funny Cliff Chamberlain), Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman, like much of the cast, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company veteran) whose agenda includes financing an attraction called the Lincoln Smackdown, that offers the opportunity “for anyone to fight Honest Abe in a steel cage.” Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy) wants to redesign the town’s fountain to make it accessible despite others suggesting that laying down a plank would solve the problem just as well, while Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy, charming) sits dazed and confused and Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still) suffers as a result of his unfortunate surname.
While this tomfoolery unspools, something darker lurks underneath. The council’s newest member, Mr. Peel (Noah Reid), cannot get a straight answer as to what occurred in the previous week’s meeting, or why council member Mr. Carp (Ian Barford) is conspicuously absent. Mayor Superba (Letts) is keeping secrets while the clever clerk, Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller), is dishing out clues. When Carp finally does show up, in the form of a flashback to the previous week, he comes bearing a painful truth that transforms the evening into a shocking exploration of revisionist thinking and tribalism.
Director Anna D. Shapiro is no stranger to Letts’s work and knows how to keep it moving. When she manages to get her actors out of their half circle of chairs, it is to fine effect. Reid, known best for his role on Schitt’s Creek, is remarkably comfortable and relatable in his Broadway debut and Mueller, stepping outside the world of musicals, breathes life into an underwritten role. Letts is workmanlike as an actor and bold as a playwright, taking a risk on an unsettling ending that is out of harmony with its build up. No spoilers, but suffice it to say that there are reasons why the local football team is named the Big Cherry Savages.
The Minutes – By Tracy Letts; directed by Anna D. Shapiro.
WITH: Tracy Letts (Mayor Superba), Ian Barford (Mr. Carp), Blair Brown (Ms. Innes), Cliff Chamberlain (Mr. Breeding), K. Todd Freeman (Mr. Blake), Danny McCarthy (Mr. Hanratty), Jessie Mueller (Ms. Johnson), Sally Murphy (Ms. Matz), Austin Pendleton (Mr. Oldfield), Noah Reid (Mr. Peel), and Jeff Still (Mr. Assalone).
Scenic design by David Zinn. Costume design by Ana Kuzmanic. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound and original music by André Pluess. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Choreography by Ty Defoe. Studio 54, 254 West 54th St. 212-239-6200, https://theminutesbroadway.com. Through July 24. Running time: 90 minutes.