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Theatre in Review: The Minutes (Studio 54)

Tracy Letts, Noah Reid. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

In plays like Man from Nebraska, Superior Donuts, and especially August: Osage County, Tracy Letts has established himself as a specialist in Midwestern malaise. He's also something of a national diagnostician, detecting alarming symptoms of a society imploding from decadence and self-absorption. The Minutes is his direst prognosis yet of our body politic. This brief, acrid comedy unfolds, more or less in real time, at a city council meeting in the town of Big Cherry -- and just wait until you find what the name means -- wickedly skewering its rogues' gallery of small-town bureaucrats before descending into ritualized horror.

Anna D. Shapiro's production, originally staged at Steppenwolf in Chicago, rounds up a lively assortment of hair-splitting petty functionaries, each skilled in the art of obstruction. If you've ever sat on a board of directors, in an academic department meeting, or in local government, you'll recognize the species. Austin Pendleton, outfitted with rumpled clothing, rumpled hair, and a rumpled visage, is the senior member, rousing himself from black despair to pose conversation-stopping questions that hint at senility. (Hearing that many people toss coins in the town fountain while making wishes, he grumbles incredulously, "The wishes cost money?") Blair Brown, made up and coiffed à la Betty Ford, puts the others on edge while reading her musings into the official record. ("Sure, over the years, we've had our dustups and differences, tête-à-têtes over policy, clashes of personalities, to say nothing of a certain rape and subsequent abortion, but that's all water under the bridge.") Sally Murphy, heavily medicated and accident-prone, specializes in gnomic responses to the most basic questions. By contrast, K. Todd Freeman appears relatively reasonable until he pitches an allegedly sure-fire tourist attraction known as the "Lincoln Smackdown." It's "an opportunity for anyone to fight Honest Abe in a steel cage," with an MMA fighter posing as the 16th president.

This kind of grotesque, bone-dry comedy is a Letts specialty and Shapiro's cast delivers it with faultless timing and a full appreciation for their characters' unspoken malice and passive-aggressive tactics. For example, councilmember Danny McCarthy's proposal for wheelchair access to the aforementioned fountain -- a principal beneficiary would be his sister -- bogs down in a lengthy discussion about the relative correctness of "handicapped," "impaired," and "disabled." ("'Handicapped' went out with sodomy laws," McCarthy insists. "Don't we still have sodomy laws?" Freeman wonders.)

In these skirmishes, The Minutes succeeds as sketch comedy, served up with pinpoint hilarity by a cast of pros. But, almost immediately, it's clear that something more sinister is afoot, and not just because of the raging thunderstorm that occasionally plunges the room into darkness. Several questions nag at Noah Reid, who is new in town and the most recent addition to the team: Why is one member of the council absent and unaccounted for? Why, when his name comes up, does everyone change the subject? And how is it that the minutes from the previous meeting, which Reid missed, have not yet been prepared? The other council members, by way of deflection, are only too eager to present their re-enactment of the town's origin story -- which, Reid notes, borrows heavily from the John Ford film The Searchers.

The penny finally drops in a flashback that introduces Ian Barford as that MIA council member, who, in a blistering report, reveals that the town's history is built on a foundation of lies. (No spoilers here, but his speech is as timely as the controversy over the 1619 Project or Ron DeSantis' latest censorship caper. He also exposes the ongoing chicanery involving another council member and his brother, the police chief.) It's an ideal assignment for the authoritative Barford, who doesn't enter until about two-thirds into the play, offers a scouring blast of honesty that reduces the room to stunned silence.

The switch in tone, from bleak, absurdist comedy to electrifying indictment, isn't entirely seamless, but the play really falters after Barford exits, leaping toward a stylized form of violence that leaves too many plot points dangling. Some have invoked the name of Shirley Jackson in reference to the finale -- not to be disclosed here -- but it's more like the shocker ending of a minor Ira Levin thriller or an off-night on The Twilight Zone. Because Letts hasn't laid the foundation for it, it feels like a desperate shock tactic. In any case, you're likely to leave the theatre wondering what just happened.

Until then, The Minutes offers plenty of bilious fun. Reid, offering a lengthy opening prayer that has everyone simmering with impatience, is an ideal naïf. In a rare non-musical role, Jessie Mueller underplays expertly as the chilly, poker-faced council secretary, so devoted to her job that she can't help baring the evidence that everyone else wants covered up. Letts, also appearing as the mayor, vigorously pushes back at Reid, noting, chillingly, "Remember that you live in a cocoon of comfort and safety because a lot of people who came before you weren't afraid to get their hands dirty." Pendleton, growling in disgust at the CVS that replaced his beloved Rexall; Brown, offering one nonsensical statement after another in the most reasonable tone; and Murphy, with her permanent deer-in-the-headlights demeanor, are all spot-on.

David Zinn's set, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling décor that includes a patriotic, allegorical painting, is one of his best recent design, and Brian MacDevitt's lighting builds tension with a series of blackouts and short-circuit effects, aided by André Pluess' sound design. Ana Kuzmanic's costumes add plenty of subtle identifying details to the characters' everyday wear.

Even given its considerable sting, The Minutes is, I think, a minor Letts work, lacking the epic family dysfunctions of August: Osage County or the richly developed characters of Linda Vista. But there's little doubt that when it comes to presenting a clarifying vision of our confused and fractious present, he has few, if any, peers. Here, he offers a warning to keep you up at night: The myths by which we live are a powerful source of meaning; they also kill. --David Barbour

(25 April 2022)

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