NEW YORK, NY.-
If you set out to imagine the dullest possible setting for a play, you might come up with something much like the one Tracy Letts puts before you in The Minutes, a Steppenwolf Theater production that opened Sunday at Studio 54. What could be more tedious, onstage or in life, than a City Council meeting with little on the agenda besides approving the official record of the last one? Or arguing the merits of a Lincoln Smackdown cage match attraction at the next annual heritage festival?
Yet Letts, a master of the American Macabre, makes something quite different of these middling workplace comedy ingredients: not a Parks and Recreation, nor even a Miles for Mary, but a deeply troubling play about history and horror.
He tips his hand slowly. The Minutes is at first content merely to assemble, in a series of deft introductions, a hilarious portrait of the burghers of Big Cherry, a wet sock of a town whose main industry seems to be self-satisfaction. Under the handsome barrel vault of the council chamber, and in front of a mural of vague allegorical figures the witty set is by David Zinn we meet the mayor and the nine other members of the august body.
Or really just eight: The maroon chair of the ninth, Mr. Carp, is mysteriously empty. After criticizing the council at a previous meeting, his term has apparently been terminated. It may be that he, too, has somehow been terminated, but the minutes that would clarify the matter are currently unavailable. As if acknowledging that something paranormal and possibly evil has happened, the council clerk, the phlegmatic Ms. Johnson drolly played by Jessie Mueller keeps calling on the missing member during votes and then reflexively adding, My bad.
If Mr. Carp (Ian Barford) has been named for his quicksilver disappearance or perhaps for the captiousness that led to it pay attention, too, to the names of the others, which often hint, like those in a Restoration comedy, at their qualities.
Theres the klutz, Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy), brightly announcing shes heavily medicated. Theres the geezer, Mr. Oldfield (Austin Pendleton), stricken to learn that the local Rexall has become a CVS. But even the golfing Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), the self-involved Ms. Innes (Blair Brown) and the smug Mayor Superba (played by the playwright himself) cannot compete for excellent eponymy with Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still), whose nature is revealed every time Ms. Johnson pronounces his name without his preferred upward accent at the end.
Into this palace of complacent, petty bureaucrats enters the necessary outsider, Mr. Peel (Noah Reid), who will soon be stripped to his core while trying to unravel the mystery at theirs. As the newest and youngest member of the council a dentist not from the area and therefore not familiar with its traditions Reid combines the aw-shucks pluck he brought to the role of Patrick on Schitts Creek with a mounting apprehension that may remind you of other creeping-realization-of-evil tales like The Lottery, The Crucible and, more pertinently, Get Out.
Pertinent because the story that Letts gradually unwinds parts of which are surreally enacted before us is about racial horror. It concerns the supposed rescue, in November 1872, of a local white girl from Native Americans, who in the towns official history are portrayed as vicious savages bent on thievery, murder and rape. Although Mr. Peel finds it suspiciously reminiscent of the John Wayne movie The Searchers, this tale is still taught in classrooms and purveyed in patriotic pageants; it is enshrined in the imagery on a fountain Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy) wants to erect, as well as in the name of the high school football team and even the name of the town.
I cant tell you more about the secret history of Big Cherry except to say it is gruesome and surely distressingly common. The American story most of us have been taught to treasure is full of similar horrors. They require revealing and so does the furious backlash that inevitably greets attempts to do so.
You need only look at state laws, like one in Texas, aiming to restrict history texts to white-triumphalist narratives, or certain responses to the New York Times' 1619 Project, to know that questioning our past can be a dangerous business. The Minutes shows how uprooting foundational stories can feel to some otherwise reasonable people like tearing their hearts out. They would rather tear out someone elses.
But even with nothing but admiration for what Letts is trying to do, and for his choice to engage the tools of genre to do it, I have many questions about the way it plays out for an audience. As directed by his frequent collaborator Anna D. Shapiro, The Minutes doesnt quite nail its U-turn from expert comedy to jaw-dropping horror, which it tries to finesse by inoculating the first half of the play with toxins from the second. Occasional flashes, sizzles and blinks (lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by André Pluess) interrupt the bureaucratic satire with premonitory alarm. Flares of apparently unmotivated aggression two councilmen, arguing about the Lincoln Smackdown, get into a smackdown of their own suggest the irrational eruption of evil to come.
These staging cliches and comic bits, often at the cost of character logic, do not really prepare us for the plays awful revelations and perhaps it is exactly Letts intention that we not be prepared. Who ever is?
Still, in trying to use purely theatrical means to avoid the traps of didacticism that so many well-intentioned plays fall into, The Minutes instead falls into the trap of bad taste. The councils engagement in racist pageantry even Mr. Blake, the sole Black member (K. Todd Freeman), happily participates makes a very uncomfortable point when done for laughs. I question whether the story earns the right to return to similar imagery later, this time seriously.
I am not arguing against bad taste in general, and it may even serve here as a cautionary element, at least for white people: Dont try this racism at home. Yet I couldnt keep my mind from drifting to the feelings The Minutes might arouse among Native Americans, whether in the audience or not. Would it feel like their cultures were, once again, being borrowed and distorted to make someone elses point? Would the trade-off be worth it?
This being the kind of play you think a lot about afterward, I kept replaying those questions long after it was over, measuring it against my own reactions to theatrical tropes of Jewishness and gayness, revising and re-revising my opinion of its merits. You may, too.
Ultimately, I came to feel that if it is the theaters main business to mirror who we are to act, like the minutes of a meeting, as an absolute record of what we say and how we behave then The Minutes does what a play aimed mostly at white people must. It shows us how we are starting to understand, but still mostly failing to accept, that our privileges are tied to a history of denying them to others. I think it is warning us, in its own dramatic way, to do better, before the minutes, as they will, harden into millenniums.
Through July 24 at Studio 54, Manhattan; theminutesbroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times