A PopCult Theatre Review
A month ago your PopCulteer and his lovely wife went to New York to see The Minutes. This is a new play for Broadway written by Tony and Pulitzer-winning playwright, Tracy Letts. Letts is also a Tony-winning actor, and Mel is a huge fan of his work, and has turned me into one as well.
Such big fans are we that we actually saw the world premiere of The Minutes at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago in 2017. So I have a bit of a different perspective, having seen the earlier production, but there have been changes, and I was curious to see what they were.
As for the play itself, The Minutes, on the surface, is a very insightful comedy about the eccentric quirks and dysfunctionality of a small-town city council meeting. During the course of the 90-minute running time of this brisk play, that surface gets worn away, and we are treated to a sharply satirical and scathing look at the whitewashing of history and the denial of the racist and genocidal past of our country.
That may seem like quite a turn, but it isn’t, and that point underscores how ingrained American mythology and historical revisionism is in this country.
Without giving away too much of the plot, The Minutes opens as members of the Big Cherry City Council are arriving at their weekly meeting during a pouring thunderstorm. We meet the characters in this very powerful ensemble, as they bring the newest member of the council, Mr. Peel (Noah Reid) up to date. He’d missed the prior meeting due to the death of his mother.
It seems that the prior meeting, the one which Mr. Peel had missed, was quite eventful. One council member has mysteriously left and the minutes for that meeting are not yet prepared, so Mr. Peel can’t find out why.
Each council member has their own agenda and Mr. Peel has the type of personality that makes him want to do anything to fit in, which turns out to be a key part of the story. We are treated to various harebrained schemes of the council members like “Lincoln Smackdown” a proposed fund-raiser that would feature a professional wrestler dressed as our 16th president.
When the discussion turns to the heritage festival, the entire council re-enacts the story of the founding of Big Cherry for the benefit of Mr. Peel. This is downright hilarious and shows a comedic ensemble firing on all cylindars with slapstick precision.
Then we discover the true story behind Big Cherry, and this is where the play turns serious.
My memory is not crystal clear, but I think there has been some re-writing or at least some re-arranging since I saw the play in 2017 in Chicago. The narrative seems tighter and the pacing improved. Another big change is in the cast.
Some of the cast of the 2017 production has returned, one of them in a different role, but there is a chemistry in this new production that was not present in Chicago. I’m sure some of this has to do with the fact that this production was slated to open in the Spring of 2020 before the pandemic hit, and this crew had been rehearsing via Zoom for a few months early in the COVID shutdown before resuming in March.
Also, this is the first time I know of that Letts has acted in one of his own plays. He is perfect in the role of Mayor Superba, overseeing the city council and trying to maintain order…in more ways that one.
There are so many amazing performances woven into this work. Noah Reid perfectly captures the essence of. Mr. Peel, the naive council newbie who inadvertantly stirs up trouble while trying to fit in. Cliff Chamberlain, who played Mr. Peel in the Chicago production, is Mr. Breeding here, and assays the role with a note-perfect Pete Dooceyian level of clueless douchebaggery that garners a great deal of laughs from the audience.
Each ensemble member brings to life their own archetype of small-town politics. Blair Brown is the cranky, older, Karen-esque senior lady on the council. Austin Pendleton is hilarious as the doddering and defensive longest-serving council member, whose major concern is his parking spot. Jeff Still is the shady businessman with a shady brother who’s the police chief. Being from a pretty small town, these are all familiar to me.
I could go on and name the entire ensemble. The Minutes should be exhibit “A” in the argument that The American Theatre Wing should establish a new Tony award for Best Ensemble, because it is so hard to single out one performance out of this well-oiled machine.
When I saw The Minutes Joshua David Robinson played the role of Mr. Blake, the lone Black council member, and you could not tell he was an understudy. He fit perfectly and made me forget any disappointment I had at not seeing the excellent K. Todd Freeman that day.
One slightly controversial element of The Minutes is the use of that most vile of racial slurs. It is used once, for shock value, but is absolutely vital to the play. It’s the point where The Minutes makes the full transition from being a happy ensemble comedy about a small-town city council meeting to being a biting satirical comment on a very topical matter.
When that word is used, it’s like watching a zany pie fight, where suddenly one of the pies has a brick in it.
At that point, everything becomes crystal clear. This is when you realize that The Minutes may be the most honestly American play written in the last century. It is scathingly relevant while remaining fall-down funny.
I hope that this production, which runs until July 24th at Studio 54 in New York, has been recorded for Great Performances or a streaming service. It should be required viewing in every high school history class.
Credit has to go to Letts, the playwright, as well as the director, Anna D. Shapiro and David Zinn for his remarkable set design. Everything about The Minutes is perfectly-executed.
It was well worth spending 25 hours on the Amtrak Cardinal (up and back) to see The Minutes on Broadway.