Time has caught up to The Minutes. When the civic comedy was announced for the 2020 Broadway season, it seemed like a prescient choice, full of up-to-the-moment thoughts about governance. Tracy Letts is the rare playwright whose own celebrity is enough to prompt a Broadway run; ever since the runaway success of August: Osage County, he has had that green-light touch. But then, of course, there were delays.
Between the parentheses of March 2020 and April 2022, actor Armie Hammer left the cast after his reputation combusted; Trump befouled the transfer of power; and the insurrectionists revealed the chaos at the heart of our democracy. Every postponed production has had to account for lost time and changed context, but the gap posed a special challenge for The Minutes: The show deals with a city council meeting, and we’ve spent 700 days watching such conclaves accelerate beyond fractiousness into Kafka-esque terror. Events raced past Letts’s script, with death threats and violence interrupting school-board meetings and public health hearings. Juvenalian satire requires that it be more extreme than reality. Imagine Jonathan Swift having supply-chain issues — only to discover that the English had actually started eating babies before he could publish.
Mr. Peel (Noah Reid), a novice assemblyman in a small town, has missed a closed session of the town council due to his mother’s funeral. He’s a bit of a naïf, thrilled to show pictures of his infant daughter to his colleagues, wandering out of the rain still dazed from grief. “You feel untethered,” says another man, as they gather. “Well, I suppose you are.” Now that Mr. Peel is back in their chamber, the other councilors are being weirdly cagey about whatever happened the previous week, and they refuse to distribute that meeting’s minutes. Plus one of the councilmen is missing. Mr. Peel begs the clerk (Jessie Mueller), Mayor Superba (Letts himself), and the room at large for clarification — but everyone ducks his questions. There’s plenty of new business to distract him: Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman) proposes a cage-match attraction to raise money for the town’s festival; Mr. Hanratty (the firework Danny McCarthy) hopes to make the civic fountain accessible; Mr. Oldfield (Austin Pendleton) wants a parking spot. Still, the town’s old business — very, very old business — will not be denied.
Having trouble remembering all those names? No problem, most of them are mnemonics. Mr. Peel is the hero with thin skin; Superba is top man. The dithery, fluttery Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy) is mad; Mr. Oldfield is old; Superba’s sidekick, the contemptuous Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), struts and preens like a gorilla in season. And grouchy Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still) is … look, I’m not going to spoil the plot for you.
This determinative nomenclature is a little nod to Dickens and a peep into Letts’s comic methods. Like Dickens, he’s a connoisseur of folly — he rolls human silliness against his palate as if he’s testing it for notes of stone fruit. He therefore finds much to be delighted by in meeting minutiae. The clerk mispronounces Mr. Assalone’s name every time she calls the roll. Mr. Oldfield and Ms. Innes (Blair Brown) squabble in increasingly hilarious ways, and people bicker over points of order and word choice. “Oh, here we go, the language police,” grumbles Mr. Breeding, after saying ten offensive things in a row. “Language police” might describe Letts too: He has fun with infractions.
There’s overwhelming abundance in having a cast that includes so many heavy hitters, all contentedly kibitzing on the bench. There are a lot of Tony Awards on that stage. Reid — already beloved from his role on Schitt’s Creek and new to Broadway — has the wide eyes of a rookie; some of the drifting menace in the room is our vicarious sense of what it feels like to be a young actor with a thousand years of collected theatrical experience arrayed before him. (The laugh-a-minute Pendleton was in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof, but sure, don’t let that intimidate you.) Letts has a rapid pinprick wit, and he inflicts real damage in the play’s early sections. Part of his cleverness lies in this interplay of the actors’ outsize magnificence and his message about small-town city fathers. These fools think they’re Olympians, and who gave them power? Look around.
The Minutes begins as sly frustration comedy. From the moment the lights flicker and the thunder crashes, we can tell Letts is planning to steer this thing into absurdist dread. At first, how he gets there is dramaturgically impressive, full of flashbacks and a bizarre, all-hands-on-deck reenactment of the town’s own history. Letts clearly finds pleasure in the way archives work, from their little notations (Peel’s greatest triumph comes from knowing what NB means when he sees it written on a document) to the way that records render up the past. It’s the opening of one such record that plunges the play from lightness into desperate gravity. The show suddenly becomes clumsy. Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro fumble the first pivot into seriousness, and they do far worse than that in the final turn.
I think Letts has important issues on his mind, so I’m sorry I couldn’t follow him as he goes more fully into them. As he did in August: Osage County, he wants to deal with the state’s foundational sin — the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans. In that play, the house (synecdoche for the country) has a literal Indian in the attic, and the housekeeper character Johnna only reminds and presides. But in The Minutes, Letts isn’t content simply to point at history: He wants to impart its horror. This tonal shift requires a huge stylistic swing, and The Minutes — so fine and deft and wicked for its first 60 minutes — can’t take it. The play shakes and starts to fly to pieces, a Superleggera car taken off-road. I read The Minutes back in the early days of the shutdown, and I remember the moment when I began to think our real absurdities outstripped Letts’s fictional ones. His touch is so perfect and light when he’s doing realism that reality obliged and caught up to him. Knowing what he does now, what play would he write? Would that blunt ending be the same? I won’t believe it. You can’t just leave your satire lying around for two years; you have to measure it down to the minute.
The Minutes is at Studio 54.