What could be duller than a suburban town meeting? NOT. Arriving in set designer David Zinn’s beautifully detailed, barrel-vault chamber, six council members and the mayor of Big Cherry assemble for what looks like a ho-hum confab and turns into a gothic parable. Master playwright Tracy Letts at first strings us along with a group of sanctimonious people who might as easily be delivering farce. Himself an excellent actor, Letts plays Mayor Superba (note everyone’s name), a pompous, macho leader who’s cock sure in purpose and agency.
(L-R) Jessie Mueller as Ms. Johnson, Noah Reid as Mr. Peel, Jeff Still as Mr. Assalone, Tracy Letts as Mayor Superba and Cliff Chamberlain as Mr. Breeding
Others include: Spacey, admittedly medicated Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy, the weak link here), stuck-in-the-1950s Miss Innis (Blair Brown, who manages to be compelling even low key), obtuse racist Mr. Breeding -see what I mean about the names? – (aptly wince-inducing Cliff Chamberlain), Mr. Assalone (wry, understated Jeff Still), who at one point drifts into a John Wayne imitation, naïve liberal Mr. Hanratty (tonight vibrantly played by Greg Stuhr), permanent fixture geezer Mr. Oldfield (Austin Pendleton having the time of his life with expert, deadpan timing), quirky Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman, a droll stand-out), and clean-cut newbie, Mr. Peel who was absent from the last meeting due to his mother’s passing. (Noah Reid, extremely credible as the idealist lamb tossed in with lions.)
Clerk Ms. Johnson, whose quiet persona walks the line between stolid and desperate, keeps the referred to “minutes.” (Jessie Mueller with unexpected comic skill.) Only missing is “terminated” Mr. Carp (Ian Barford, palpably impassioned in flashback) whose empty chair, though explained away, becomes increasingly ominous. Foreboding is also stoked by the maelstrom of thunder, lightning and rain that periodically affects the building’s electrical system and by small, disproportionately vehement disagreements among members.
The council is lead in prayer, then recites the Pledge of Allegiance. (Remember it?) In proper parliamentary style, Mayor Superba then goes down a list of issues. He does so without referring to the last meeting’s minutes which are inexplicably unavailable despite Ms. Johnson’s compulsive efficiency. Mr. Peel doggedly questions this and reason for Mr. Carp’s leaving, a subject everyone dodges.
Mr. Oldfield and Ms. Innis have personal concerns, the disappearance of 100 town bicycles smells of corruption, Mr. Blake presents his idea for a Lincoln Smackdown attraction that may curl your toes, Mr. Hanratty displays his blueprint for a fountain renovation that will allow the disabled (i.e. his sister) to get up close. A statue would be erected near the wellspring depicting their local war hero and the 1872 Battle of Mackie Creek which are celebrated at the town’s annual Heritage Festival. Since Mr. Peel is unfamiliar with the story, the mayor narrates as council members whip off their jackets and enthusiastically enact a scenario of American soldiers vs. blood-thirsty Sioux Indians. Everyone takes part. The horrific event comes off like comedy.
(L-R) Tracy Letts as Mayor Superba and Noah Reid as Mr. Peel
Like Mr. Smith (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Mr. Peel won’t let go of what the missing minutes contain and how this relates to Mr. Carp. Revelations cascade one after the other, at first in real time, then in flashback until a horrible truth comes out. Foundational stories are not easily uprooted, however. What began with hints and clues erupts into declaration (Letts effectively faces but doesn’t look at us) which, though about Big Cherry, might as easily describe the perversion of our country as we knew it. This culminates in a visceral ceremony from which some audience members turn away.
Playwright Tracy Letts depicts the rewriting of history as endemic (Texas, anyone?), its consequences as dire. Setting his horror story at the center of a commission that stands for civic responsibility is on target. The piece shouts “Be Aware!” to a population increasingly allowing just such eventualities. You will leave shuddering.
Anna D. Shapiro, who often collaborates as Lett’s director, does a simply wonderful job. Wherever your eyes turn, small stage business is telling. Comic timing is pristine. Altercations arrive thoroughly believable; tempers flare and recede in accordance with distinctive personalities. The reenactment is priceless, the closing ‘supplication’ devastating.
Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes and Tom Watson’s hair and wig design fit each character like second skin. Ms. Innis’ coif and feminine, matronly ensemble, Mr. Oldfield’s choice of a bow tie, the major’s bright purple power sweater, and Ms. Matz’s bizarre entrance attire describe as well as clothe.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Jeff Still as Mr. Assalone, Tracy Letts as Mayor Superba and Cliff Chamberlain as Mr. Breeding.
The Minutes by Tracy Letts
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
254 W 54th St