Napoleon pondered, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” And Winston Churchill has been credited with the adage, “History is written by the winners.” Both insightful observations are underscored in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts’ The Minutes, now playing a limited Broadway engagement at Studio 54.
The play is set in a city council meeting room in Big Cherry, as planning is underway for the annual Heritage Festival. What starts off as a light satirical comedy on the inner workings of small-town politics and its quirky representatives suddenly turns into a nagging question of why Councilman Carp and the eponymous minutes from the previous meeting have mysteriously gone missing, then fulminates into an explosive harangue on the biased recording of history and ends with an ominous surreal vision. It’s a progressively damning indictment of lies, cover-ups, corruption, privilege, and the hypocrisy of those in charge that turns on a dime in real time, with an eerie over-the-top heavy-handed allegorical ending that overwhelms the inherent truths and sardonic wit of the story.
An accomplished cast of eleven delivers the initial laughs and risible personality types, growing discord and anger, and ultimate creepiness of the assorted characters under the charged direction of Anna D. Shapiro (back on Broadway with Letts for the first time since their Tony-winning hit August: Osage County). In his Broadway debut, Noah Reid (of the popular TV series Schitt’s Creek) stars as Mr. Peel – a good-natured optimist and the newest member of the council, who was absent from the last meeting to attend his mother’s funeral, so asks some unwelcome questions about what happened, triggering a sequence of disturbing revelations.
Letts appears as the authoritative and evasive Mayor Superba, determined to move on with the meeting, supported and flanked by his closest cohorts: the tough and connected Mr. Assalone, brother of the possibly corrupt town sheriff; and the smiling and entitled Mr. Breeding, whose name says it all (well-played respectively by Jeff Still and Cliff Chamberlain). Other members of the closed council are portrayed by the hilarious Austin Pendleton as the confused, forgetful, and often crotchety elder Mr. Oldfield; Blair Brown as the pompous, out-of-touch, long-term councilwoman Ms. Innes; and Sally Murphy as the easily distracted young scatterbrain Ms. Matz.
They are joined by Danny McCarthy and K. Todd Freeman as Mr. Hanratty and Mr. Blake, whose excessive pet projects for the town and festival led to the scrutiny and outrage of Mr. Carp. Though not present at the meeting, he is played with conviction by Ian Barford, who is seen in a climactic flashback to his explosive socio-political diatribe against the personal agendas of the council, the intentional inaccuracies of history, and the offensive origins of Big Cherry’s name, as contrived, misrepresented, and preserved by the prejudiced self-aggrandizing victors. It’s all brought to light by the recording clerk Ms. Johnson, portrayed with just the right tone of professionalism, ethics, and efficiency by the excellent Jessie Mueller, then heightened in the shocking finale, choreographed by Ty Defoe.
David Zinn’s scenic design captures the familiar style and traditional Americana of the council room, and costumes by Ana Kuzmanić and hair and wigs by Tom Watson are suited to the idiosyncratic characters, while lighting by Brian MacDevitt and sound by André Pluess, with flickering bulbs, flashes of lightning, and resounding thunder, portend of the coming storm that engulfs them.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
The Minutes plays through Sunday, July 24, 2022, at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $49-249), call (212) 239-6200, or go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.