Review: The Minutes Is a Horror Story of American Democracy
The author of August: Osage County returns to Broadway with a play about small-town government.
Beginning in 2021, when most theaters were still closed, Americans created their own by attending (and often dramatically upending) schoolboard and local council meetings across the country. While this display of jackassery (to borrow a word from Nebraska's Junior Senator) has been decried (at best) as a waste of public time and resources, it seems preferable to the sinister, thoroughly untransparent style of governance depicted in Tracy Letts's The Minutes, now making its long-delayed Broadway debut at Studio 54 in a production from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
Like all good horror stories, it takes place on a dark and stormy night: The city council of Big Cherry, a town somewhere in the American West, is meeting in a closed session to discuss routine business and the annual heritage festival. That's when the town celebrates its 1872 founding, which followed the triumph of the U.S. Army over a band of violent Sioux raiders — or so the story goes.
Mr. Peel (Noah Reid) is new to town, and newly elected to the council. He missed the last meeting in order to attend his mother's funeral back East, and he suspects something significant went down: Mr. Carp (Ian Barford) is no longer on the council and the minutes from that session are mysteriously unavailable. Mayor Superba (played by Letts with stony patriarchal geniality) is cagey about what transpired and seems intent on bulldozing forward, flanked by his two enforcers, Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain as a smirking frat boy) and Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still, a thug in a suit). But Peel wonders if the key to unlocking this mystery is the council clerk, Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller) — that is, after she practically bludgeons him with hints to that effect.
Mueller is just one of several incredible performers in this stacked cast, and she solidifies her reputation as one of Broadway's best actors by making the eventual recitation of the withheld minutes edge-of-your-seat suspenseful. Reid (who took over the role from the originally cast Armie Hammer) is appropriately innocent. Danny McCarthy offers a sweaty, smiling-til-it-hurts portrayal of Hanratty, a councilman whose proposal for an accessible fountain is thwarted by the ruling clique. K. Todd Freeman excellently embodies Blake, a politician better at playing the game (albeit with worse ideas). As the council's hapless Dean (39 years of service) Austin Pendleton delivers a hilarious and heartbreaking demonstration of the fact that seniority rarely translates into real power.
Under Anna D. Shapiro's sharp direction, these performances perfectly convey Letts's shrewd depiction of the pitfalls of democracy: how elected positions become targets for those seeking to enrich themselves; how even honest public servants are constrained by the need to maintain a stable income; and how unaccountable power can graft itself onto democratic institutions and call itself legitimate. Letts dramatizes all of this with brutal, unflinching precision.
The elements of horror are most effectively introduced by the design: Sound designer André Pluess realistically creates the thunderstorm raging outside, while Brian MacDevitt's flickering lights suggest the creaking infrastructure threatening to plunge this meeting into total darkness. Tom Watson outfits Blair Brown (who plays Ms. Innes, the council's second most senior member) in a realistic Dianne Feinstein wig, scary in its own way. Ana Kuzmanić's costumes capture the calculated attire of power (Letts's meant-to-look-innocuous, but actually imperious burgundy sweater gets a chef's kiss). David Zinn's set seems to tell the entire story of American government, from its high-backed leather swivel chairs to its ersatz Greco-Roman dome with recessed lighting. It seems impressive at first glance, but look closer and you'll see the stains of decades of water damage — or perhaps something worse. Shapiro and her designers artfully employ the trappings of the horror movie genre to prick our imaginations, inviting the audience to fill in the rest.
That's why it's so disappointing that Letts goes full Rosemary's Baby with an over-the-top ending that reeks of the desperation of an older white playwright trying to prove his woke bona fides. It won't be enough to satisfy the Twitter mob that wants him to make space in the theater by ceasing to create. And in choosing this course, Letts undermines much of the dramatic power he subtly builds up over 90 minutes. It is a stunning crash landing for an otherwise very good play.
I suspect that Letts's heart is in the right place, and that he is honestly interested in telling an important truth from a Broadway stage: This is a country built on top of conquered lands formerly occupied by the victims of bloodiest and most sustained genocide in recorded history. Nothing can ever undo that, and replacing the Pledge of Allegiance with a land acknowledgement is a poor form of reparations. Someday, someone will be able to tell that story on a New York stage without it degenerating into self-flagellating, quasi-religious ceremony.