“Tracy Letts” has been a buzzword in my life since 2007, when I was first introduced to the masterpiece that is August: Osage County. The Pulitzer prize-winning playwright has such a knack for the specific kind of drama that I love most--gritty realism blended with dark humor--so it’s a slight understatement to say that I had high expectations going into his latest collaboration with director Anna D. Shapiro, The Minutes.
Alas, the higher you fly, the further you fall. Letts’ 90 minute political dramedy, a “scathing new comedy about small-town politics and real-world power,” failed to have the major impact that its suspenseful set-up intended. What promised to be an intensive investigation into how we craft and present historical narratives, a topic all too timely, turned into a horror film gone wrong in its final minutes.
The play begins at a small-town city council meeting as the ‘wholesome’ residents of Big Cherry discuss an agenda of parking spot claims and fountain renovations. There’s just one problem: Last meeting’s minutes, along with long time council member Mr. Carp (Ian Barford), are missing. Having been absent from the previous week’s gathering, newest council member and proud father Mr. Peel (Cliff Chamberlain) insists on hearing what exactly happened and why no record of the meeting seems to exist, a request which is suspiciously met with resistance.
It is in these opening moments that some of Letts’ quintessential strengths shine; his ability to create distinct but realistic characters, particularly those with southern or midwestern sympathies, and his sharp, witty dialogue that makes audiences laugh but also fosters deeper questions about his characters’ beliefs and motives. Yet, as the play continues, the long awaited conclusion takes a more absurdist turn, opting for a The Lottery-esque ending that loses some of the play’s depth.
We are living in a time when the credibility of sources, political or otherwise, is called into question daily--an era of political policies declared via social media, of revisionist history in presidential speeches. Undoubtedly, this is what Letts seeks to unpack with The Minutes, through the lens of a small town determined to maintain a particular narrative about its origins, one which favors white supremacy and obscures any sense of displacement or violence. And though the play successfully begins down this path, the swift, over-simplified (in terms of its focus on the town’s history) conclusion in some ways feels like a cop-out. What’s meant to be a chilling and sobering ending to a comical play comes across instead as a absurdist escape--an unwillingness to really talk about these issues and to highlight not the inanity of this idea but the reality of it.
Perhaps it’s the too-quick pace at which the play builds. Perhaps it’s the ease with which all the characters, including the council’s sole person of color, jump on the Big Cherry bandwagon. Or perhaps it’s simply the fact that Tracy Letts is arguably (or inarguably, in my opinion) one of the best living playwrights, and this production just felt underdeveloped.
Review by Emily Schmidt
The Minutes continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through January 7. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.