Is there anything more American than a town council meeting? It’s apple pie, baseball, and sales tax all tied up in a starred-and-striped bow of civic virtue. The particular meeting that unfurls, in real time, in The Minutes, flows from the brutal imagination of the playwright Tracy Letts. So no prizes for guessing that this session will include business more vicious than debates over plans for the annual harvest festival.
Our guide for the evening is Mr Peel (Noah Reid of Schitt’s Creek), a pediatric dentist and a new electee. He is also, significantly, an incomer, brought to this particular small town, Big Cherry, by his wife. Mr. Peel had to miss the last council meeting – he left town to attend his mother’s funeral – and he enters this one slightly confused. Where is his friend Mr Carp? And why have the previous minutes not been distributed? But no one is talking. Not Letts’s Mayor Superba, not Jessie Mueller’s clerk, not any other member.
For long stretches, The Minutes, is dull, which Letts seems to intend as a feature, not a bug. Because wheels of democracy – as anyone who has stuck with C-Span for more than a few minutes can attest – tend to roll slowly, when they don’t get stuck in the mud. On the hyperlocal level, it involves a lot of speechifying, box-ticking, procedure for procedure’s sake. There are jokes, sure, though few of them seem especially effortful. Many are at the expense of the council’s most senior member, a dodderer played by the beloved Austin Pendleton. Here’s one: that character is named Mr Oldfield. No need to hold for laughs. And in truth, the show is never all that dull, in part because Anna D Shapiro, the outgoing artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre, has a true-blue acumen for pinpointing the talents of her cast, most of them Steppenwolf veterans, who wring the blood and plasma from each motion and vote.
Yet even in the bland first half, hints of something darker persist. A thunderstorm rages outside. The high school football team? They’re called the Savages. And this session is a closed one. Why? What happened at the last council meeting will of course be revealed later on. (Too much mystery is unAmerican. And the title itself holds the solution.) But even this revelation is largely beside the point.
That’s because Letts positions The Minutes as allegory – shades of The Crucible or The Lottery or Enemy of the People. His earlier play, August Osage County, explored American life through the microcosm of one dysfunctional family, The Minutes goes macro, exploring America’s foundational myths via one pretty functional local government. The American experiment, Letts suggests, is a devil’s bargain, which the final moments nudge toward the literal. (Those moments also indicate why Armie Hammer, the original Mr Peel, accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, was subbed out in favor of Reid, who radiates aw shucks integrity.)
The arguments that Letts rehearses here might have felt fresher had the play opened in 2020 as planned. But the desire to turn over Plymouth Rock, exposing Manifest Destiny as justification for genocide, and the equally fierce desire to cling to these myths – seen in the bad faith attacks on critical race theory, the frantic attempts at book banning – have since become everyday news.
It’s an argument that a left-leaning Broadway audience will find sympathetic, particularly when delivered in the easeful environment of an expensive theater by a cast that’s mostly white and mostly male. Which is to see that there are more radical ways to Letts’s argument and more radical ways to stage it. A play, like a democratic system, is by the people and for the people. But it so rarely includes everyone.