The Minutes on Broadway: Tracy Letts' workplace dramedy leaves a strange, sour taste
There's an American story that The Minutes is telling for at least an hour of its scant 90-minute runtime: a folksy, unhurried workplace comedy about ordinary people with their petty grievances and grudges, small-town secrets and idiosyncrasies.
It's a tale as old as Our Town and as recent as The Office or Parks and Recreation, and for a while at least it functions well enough under the hand of actor-playwright Tracy Letts — who won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for 2009's August: Osage County, and is probably best known in a broader pop-culture sense for his memorable supporting turns in screen projects like Lady Bird, Ford v. Ferrari, and Showtime's Homeland.
Letts earned another Pulitzer nod for The Minutes' 2017 premiere run at the famed Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, though its planned Broadway launch in March 2020 became one of the pandemic's earliest casualties (as did Armie Hammer's career; he's been replaced here by Schitt's Creek star Noah Reid.) Resurrected 25 months later, Minutes bows this week at Studio 54 in Manhattan with a freshened cast that includes several beloved theater stalwarts and Letts himself as the avuncular mayor of a modest burg called Big Cherry.
But the script, first produced more than five years ago now, lands in a very different world than the one it was conceived in. And the story's turn in the final 15 minutes from an anodyne Parks & Rec redux to something distinctly Wicker Man feels like a bizarre thing to metabolize in real time: less a twist than bloody whiplash, bent around ideas of human behavior and history that feel both ugly and obvious in 2022.
It begins unremarkably enough with the entrance of Reid's bright-eyed dentist Mr. Peel, the newest member of Big Cherry's city council. He's tardy to the party, having been waylaid by the recent illness and death of his mother, but eager to join the fray and become a conscientious civil servant. That enthusiasm is not generally shared by his fellow council members, including a harried secretary (Jessie Mueller); a few booming, barrel-chested Kiwanis Club types (K. Todd Freeman, Danny McCarthy, Cliff Chamberlain); and the persnickety old guard (Blair Brown and Austin Pendleton) who seem to have held their seats since Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer.
Minutes lets them bat around lightly comedic dialogue like lazy cats for a while, most of it small talk about squash games and surgeries and various developments at the local drug store. (There's a wild November rainstorm that keeps breaking through too, a thudding portent of things to come.) The conversation turns more contentious when an action item about making wheelchair-accessible changes to the fountain in the town square — and more specifically the annual celebration of Big Cherry's founding — crashes against a curious black hole in the previous meeting's minutes.
Why, Peel wants to know with increasing desperation, is everyone so perversely opposed to letting him read them? What inflammatory scandal could they possibly contain? The answer will arrive eventually, in a fever-dream flurry of activity that involves the violent contortions and reversals of nearly every character on stage. But there's so little baseline for it in the long, chatty stretches that precede that revelation, it feels as if Letts has merely dropped a wrench in; shock and awe for its own sake.
The roundelay of casual banalities and comic riffs in the play's first hour are no doubt meant to draw contrast to that pivot, but it's not really strong enough to support what follows — too circular and broadly sitcom-ish to make the stakes matter or the characters specific beyond their archetypes. The set is deliberately unremarkable too, a standard municipal netherworld of industrial carpets and vaguely civic-minded murals, and the direction, by Anna D. Shapiro (who won a 2008 Tony for helming Osage County), unfurls in rushed, stagey cadences. The messages drilled home in Minutes' final moments — about truth and justice, erasure and accountability — may be ones that some in the wide-swath audience of a Broadway show will still see as epiphanies. For most of us living in the smoking ash pile of the last several years, though, it's just old news. Grade: C
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