Some stories creep up in disguise, hiding a ghastly scowl. "The Minutes" is an astonishing feat from playwright and star Tracy Letts, not least for its brilliant finesse in orchestrating audience expectations and surprise. To go in knowing little or nothing about the play may be the purest way to experience its dramatic cunning. (Reader, be warned.) It is thrilling and essential theater that interrogates the present by laying bare how history is written. And it's among the best new plays on Broadway in years.
THE MINUTES Broadway Reviews
The council is sat at their desks for most of the play, so Letts' language is perfectly on display in this masterpiece of tension-filled Americana. When you aren't hilariously cracking up at the witty jokes and delicious direction, take some time to look at the detail of the desks and just what those items say about each member of the council, from colorful water bottles to 5 Hour Energy drinks. One thing is clear, if there is one play you choose to see on Broadway this season, have it be The Minutes.
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.
I wish Shapiro's powerful original production had not been obliged by all the COVID-19 chaos to move to Studio 54, a bigger theater than ideal and a space that diffuses some of the original intensity of the piece, especially since people moving on and off microphones is baked into the play. Still, "The Minutes," which has a set from David Zinn that deliciously parodies small-town self-mythologizing, can survive that. It's an important play, a visceral theatrical experience, all about what has happened to retail American democracy and how this nation decides on which stories about itself it wants to believe.
Whatever else, Letts holds a black mirror up to us about where we are and where our society and we may be headed as Republican extremists and democracy's destroyers take hold of local, national, and international politics. It is not just our vote that matters, The Minutes makes clear, but our active participation in the frayed-to-torn thing we still call democracy.
Ultimately, I came to feel that if it is the theater's main business to mirror who we are - to act, like the minutes of a meeting, as an absolute record of what we say and how we behave - then "The Minutes" does what a play aimed mostly at white people must. It shows us how we are starting to understand, but still mostly failing to accept, that our privileges are tied to a history of denying them to others. I think it is warning us, in its own dramatic way, to do better, before the minutes, as they will, harden into millenniums.
The arguments that Letts rehearses here might have felt fresher had the play opened in 2020 as planned. But the desire to turn over Plymouth Rock, exposing Manifest Destiny as justification for genocide, and the equally fierce desire to cling to these myths - seen in the bad faith attacks on critical race theory, the frantic attempts at book banning - have since become everyday news. It's an argument that a left-leaning Broadway audience will find sympathetic, particularly when delivered in the easeful environment of an expensive theater by a cast that's mostly white and mostly male.
Audience mileage will vary on the play which transforms itself from a satirical comedy about small-town bureaucracy to a dark vision of historical revisionism and collective guilt. Lett’s audacious conceit doesn’t fully work in its lengthy build-up and abrupt transition to surrealism. But it’s nonetheless a bracing and fascinating attempt to wrestle with deep moral themes.
I will just say that after a disconcerting but all-too-believable set of revelations that up the ante of satire into something far more cutting and unsettling, the play oversteps the edge and pushes everything beyond the pale into the realm of the otherworldly. Yet, while I cannot think of that tacked on "tour de force" ending as anything other than an overreaching mistake, pretty much everything that comes before, including an "historical reenactment," carefully choreographed by the Ojibwe and Oneida performance artist Ty Defoe, makes The Minutes a thrill ride of dark, dark comedy and a highlight of the theater season.
I read The Minutes back in the early days of the shutdown, and I remember the moment when I began to think our real absurdities outstripped Letts's fictional ones. His touch is so perfect and light when he's doing realism that reality obliged and caught up to him. Knowing what he does now, what play would he write? Would that blunt ending be the same? I won't believe it. You can't just leave your satire lying around for two years; you have to measure it down to the minute.
The ace ensemble on stage at Studio 54 is packed with talent. Individually and as a group, they hit their marks - no more, no less. There's not much room to stretch beyond that with such bare-bones characters. Letts lends casual gravity as Mayor Superba (a telltale name, like Peel and Carp). Jessie Mueller, who plays Ms. Johnson, the clerk who records the meeting, repeatedly seals her water bottle with an efficient click as if to signal she's a meticulous I-dotter and T-crosser. Sally Murphy works overtime to make Ms. Matz distinct by turning her into a superklutz.
What is happening in local city councils, school boards, libraries, and state legislatures - the book banning, curriculum censorship, voter suppression, the passage of blatantly unconstitutional culture war laws - has made Letts' play feel less like allegory and more like a prescient dramatization, if one filtered through the playwright's imagination, sense of humor and sense of outrage.
Ultimately, Letts is making a statement about whitewashing American history, but he hauls out an entirely new character-the heretofore absent but much-discussed Mr. Carp (Linda Vista's Ian Barford)-to do it, yielding less a moment of enlightenment and more of a screed. As for the mystifying ritualistic ending...perhaps Oldfield says it best. "Now friends, I fully expect you're going to throw me on the floor and kick me in the face," he says, "but I assure you I have no idea what is happening." The feeling, regrettably, is mutual.
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