'The Minutes' review — an electric portrait of democracy at work

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    April 17, 2022
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    In The Minutes, a backloaded button-pusher about power, history, and self-preservation, playwright Tracy Letts lifts the curtain on an ordinary closed town council meeting for a group portrait of American democracy at work. No shocker: It’s not a pretty picture.

    This 90-minute work was first seen in 2017 with Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and briefly on Broadway in 2020 before the pandemic pause. Set in the vividly named and vaguely situated Big Cherry, the setting could be anywhere in the nation — and that’s the point. If a town reflects its residents, this place is wormy all the way down to its stony pit.

    Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro lay on the "be afraid, be very afraid" effects from the get-go: Thunder booms, lightning crackles, and an old power grid buzzes ominously before a word is said in a meeting room designed with chef’s-kiss detail by David Zinn. 

    Dark-and-stormy foreshadowing doesn’t come cornier or balder than a brewing tempest. Letts, the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning author of the family saga August: Osage County and curvy drama Killer Joe, is too smart and too good a writer for it to be unintentional. Maybe he’s not telling you anything you don’t already know about the true nature of people and politics today. The show’s clever art, a lone crow lurking in an eagle mask, speaks volumes.

    The show’s pleasures are best enjoyed by not knowing specifics, so no spoilers here. Our guide to the inner sanctum is Mr. Peel (Noah Reid, a Schitt’s Creek alum in his Broadway debut), a nice-guy dentist and dad who’s new to the community and the local civics. His mom’s funeral kept him from the previous gathering. What’d he miss? Plenty. Where are Mr. Carp, a fellow group member, and the minutes to the last meeting? Innocent queries, right? You’d think. He waits for answers, and so do we.

    The most satisfying mysteries drop clues so you can participate in the puzzle-solving, but no such luck here. There’s not much momentum, either, while we eavesdrop on council talking points that run from parking spots and proposed community projects to the high school football team (the Savages), lost bicycles, and Big Cherry’s founding festival. Council members are compelled to reenact the bloody origin story for Peel in a well-rehearsed skit.

    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. 

    Austin Pendleton, as Mr. Oldfield, an irascible longtime member, scores the most laughs — even if his complete cluelessness about tossing coins in a fountain stretches credulity. It’s just more banter and vamping to hold us at arm’s length from what Letts is really chasing.

    In its revealing quarter-hour, the play is packaged to provoke and get you buzzing just like that electrical grid. Some may count what The Minutes has up its sleeve as worthy of an OMG. Others – myself included – might mutter, "Oh, brother."

    The Minutes is at Studio 54 until July 10. Get The Minutes tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

    Photo credit: Jessie Mueller, Noah Reid, Jeff Still, Tracy Letts, and Cliff Chamberlain in The Minutes. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)