As a playwright, Tracy Letts doesn’t repeat himself. From the grand soap opera of “August: Osage County” to the sentimental comedy of “Superior Donuts” to the kaleidoscopic profile of one woman that is “Mary Page Marlowe,” Letts always experiments. His latest, “The Minutes,” is agitprop. Tellingly, the play had its world premiere at Steppenwolf during the first year of the Former Guy’s presidency, and was supposed to open on Broadway in spring 2020 before it had to shutter in previews due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, “The Minutes” opened Sunday at Studio 54.
Only a few minutes into this comedy, we know we’re in for a stern lecture when someone at the Big Cherry city council meeting casually mentions the Savages, a local football team, and the Iroquois, the town golf course. Those two words “Savages” and “Iroquois” are enough to insure future verbal fireworks before Letts settles into teaching us just how dull a city council meeting can be.
Before the real controversy explodes, there is a quorum vote delivered by the madam clerk (Jessie Mueller); a long prayer is led by a new council member (Noah Reid, “Schitt’s Creek”), who just happened to miss last week’s momentous meeting, the minutes of which have mysteriously not been provided to him; and the mayor (Letts) leads the 10-member council in the Pledge of the Allegiance, which includes the words “in God we trust,” which replaced “E pluribus unum” in 1956 at the height of the Red Scare in the United States. This last piece of information regarding “in God we trust” is not mentioned in “The Minutes,” but it’s somewhat more interesting than the quorum vote, the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance that Letts delivers.
Our interest in “The Minutes” hangs on those two brief mentions of persecuted indigenous people at the top. Hopefully, theatergoers are paying attention, because an older female council member (Blair Brown) prolongs the tedium of the city council meeting by delivering a self-congratulatory speech about the upcoming November festival, which for her symbolizes Big Cherry’s pride. The speech amuses for a couple of reasons: Just when you think it’s finished, it’s not; and more important, Brown delivers an amazing impersonation of Senator Dianne Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee before she was relieved of those duties sometime after the unfortunate Amy Coney Barrett hearings. Brown personifies willful incompetence.
And speaking of entitled senility, Austin Pendleton plays an even older council member whose major concern is his parking space. Two pros, Brown and Pendleton, give acting lessons on how to underplay for maximum comic effect.
Playing the mayor’s henchmen, Cliff Chamberlain, K. Todd Freeman and Jeff Still also keep the seemingly benign fascism from surfacing too soon under Anna D. Shapiro’s uneven direction.
But what are we to make of the total female dingbat on the council, who appears also to be its youngest member? Perhaps there’s no other way for Sally Murphy to play this thankless and equally unfunny role. Letts’ material here is reminiscent of TV sitcoms from the 1970s or earlier, as sexist as it is ageist. But hey, the character is a useful idiot, so go at her! Unfortunately, this silly nincompoop presages far cruder writing to come.
One of the less mentally and morally challenged council members (Danny McCarthy) proposes that the town’s new warrior statue be wheelchair-accessible. Letts lets us know these people are right-wing nuts because they toss around words like “impaired” and “disabled” and “infirmed” but never “challenged.” Soon, someone mentions “the word police” disparagingly.
You may find yourself always about 30 minutes ahead of what’s happening in “The Minutes,” which is a problem for a play that lasts only 90. The “lost” minutes of the title are finally disclosed in the most obvious and least imaginative way possible. Long before the true history of the warrior statue is uncovered, you will have guessed that only lock-step morons could honor such a memory. The council members reenact the battle in blatantly idiotic fashion. It’s the kind of scene that provokes nervous laughter and makes parents blush at a grade-school pageant. Why are adult actors being asked to do these things in public?
Of course, that’s Letts’ point: His actors represent despicable people, so make fun of them even when the fun is lame. In a way, the battle reenactment replicates what Tucker Carlson does on a nightly basis only in reverse, turning liberals into stupid and close-minded kids.
As with any good agitprop, there’s a battle between good and evil, and in “The Minutes” it’s a theatrical stunner. Letts assigns himself one of the play’s two best roles, giving the other to Ian Barford, who was also magnetic in the playwright’s last Broadway offering, “Linda Vista.” Both actors possess the innate gravitas needed to turn this finale conflict into a real pitbull dog fight. Shapiro whips it all up into a Walpurgisnacht of anger enhanced by lightening (lighting by Brian MacDevitt) and lots of thunder (sound and original music by Andre Pluess). Missing in all the whipped-up fury is any thought of what separates Barford’s character from the others.
“The Minutes” isn’t a tragedy or even a very funny comedy. It is stirring agitprop. It induces guilt, but don’t worry. The effect is momentary. Out in the night air on West 54th Street, you can congratulate yourself for having seen a Broadway play that bluntly ridicules people who belong to the wrong tribe.