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The Minutes

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(l-r) Jessie Mueller, Noah Reid, Jeff Still, Tracey Letts and Cliff Chamberlain   (Jeremy Daniels)


The Minutes

                             By Fern Siegel


“Corruption is a cancer, a cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy.” 


The quote is courtesy of Joe Biden, when he was Veep. But he might have been referring to the people of Big Cherry, in somewhere U.S.A. or specifically, to the mayor and town council in The Minutes, which had its premiere run at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. 


Now on Broadway at Studio 54, the latest drama by Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize winner of August Osage County, is long on time, but short on substance. (Letts also plays the mayor.)

It’s a 40-minute drama stretched to 90 minutes — and while it needs more meat on its bones, it does present key thematic concerns: championing myth over reality, protecting corrupt associates versus safeguarding truth.


The play opens in November in Big Cherry, which doubles as any small town. Or, if you live in Manhattan, a suspect co-op board. The setting is a semi-circle of official-looking desks. Nine council members and one secretary convene on a dark and stormy night — cue the sound effects — to discuss the usual civic stuff: whether to erect a ramp for disabled residents or revamp the annual summer festival.


The council engages in the ordinary business that keeps democracy afloat — rules of order, bureaucratic procedures and endless, sometimes pointless, discussions. Too often, they use distractions to obscure important concerns.


But on that rare occasion when someone pursues truth, we take notice. And that’s the case with Mr. Peel. (Noah Reid, best known for Schitt’s Creek, delivers a nicely calibrated performance in his Broadway debut.)


Peel, a dentist who is new in town, missed the last meeting and wants the minutes to be read. It’s a reasonable, even banal request. And yet, they are mysteriously missing — as is Mr. Carp (Ian Barford). Peel’s colleagues have apparently taken the Mafia oath of omerta. No one is talking.


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(l-r) Blair Brown, Austin Pendleton  (Michael Brosilow)


The play includes a strong ensemble of veteran stage actors:  Blair Brown, Cliff Chamberlain, K. Todd Freeman, Tracy Letts, Danny McCarthy, Jessie Mueller, who won the Tony for Beautiful, Sally Murphy, Austin Pendleton and Jeff Still.  They are adept at stage business — when Pendleton, who has served for decades, moves his hands wildly, or Still rolls his eyes, we know we’re in the hands of pros. They can employ physical gestures to skillfully communicate frustration or confusion. The theatricality of the signals is used for comic effect. But the underlying message is sobering: Those appointed to protect our democratic values are often the first to trash them.

And that’s Letts’ larger point.


The council members are using their positions for their own ends. Often, a loopy smile or an exasperated sigh can disguise something far more lethal: self-interest at the expense of public good. Politics is a strange beast; it makes for odd pacts and conspiracies. Promises are routinely made — and broken. This isn’t a dog-eat-dog world; it’s a dog devours morality world.


That’s when the mood shifts and the missing piece — Carp’s absence — take center stage. Though Letts deftly captures all the idiosyncratic moments of town council life, too much time is spent on irrelevant talk. Suddenly, we’re racing to the finish, as the primordial ooze emerges from the nice people of Big Cherry.


Of course, they aren’t really nice, which is Letts’ point. Some people lead, others willfully or passively follow. But all are damned by their casual cruelty. Unfortunately, spin supplants reality. Injustices are often hidden. Or, when exposed, threaten enough power elites to be sidelined or buried in squabbles about the economics of payback. 


In short, The Minutes, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, who won a 2008 Tony for Osage County, feels like two different productions. The first is a slow meander through a sitcom-like staging of American government, while the second blasts into an ethical reckoning. The 180-degree shift is abrupt. Questions into the nature of accountability and the horrors that happen behind closed doors are critical. Hinting at the menace earlier would allow a dramatic build, deserving of its finale.


“A hundred years from now, will anyone care?” a councilman asks when confronted with a question he doesn’t like. They should. And if the previous administration in Washington taught us anything, it’s that dismissing morality isn’t political expediency, it’s the scaffold that can kill a great nation.


The Minutes – Studio 54 Theater, 254 West 54 St.

Running time: 90 minutes