With his new play “The Minutes,” a simmering satire of a small-town city council meeting that evolves — or devolves — into something of a horror tale, Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”) has written what is nearly certain to be the single work of art that best represents, but will also survive, the Trump era. Letts keeps us amused with subtle comedy about broad but still believable characters, who begin arguing about a parking spot and some lost bicycles, but ultimately reveal one truth after another, the biggest being that American politics has become a raw, ugly battle over our deepest underlying narratives. Or, as the mayor character puts it, “History is a verb.”
William Petersen (“CSI”) plays the slick-but-not-too-slimy Superba, leading a terrific cast of Chicago stage stalwarts at this Steppenwolf Theatre world premiere production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro (who also helmed “August”) and much discussed for a Spring berth on Broadway.
The cast of characters represents a humorously unflattering view of small-time civics in the rainy, unquestionably middle American small town of Big Cherry. To name a few, there’s Mr. Oldfield (Francis Guinan), the longest-serving and frequently befuddled council member for the city of Big Cherry; Mr. Blake (James Vincent Meredith), a non-ideological African-American with alcohol on his breath and an idea to enliven the town’s beloved harvest festival with cage fighting (and, somehow, Abe Lincoln); and Mr. Breeding (Kevin Anderson), the not politically correct, loud laugher who simply doesn’t understand why “normal people” should spend any money on things such as providing the disabled with access to enjoy the city’s fountain.
As is often the case, the outsider is our way into this world. Mr. Peel (Cliff Chamberlain) is the Jimmy Stewart figure of the story, a clean-scrubbed, new-to-town, and recently elected member who felt called to public service with the birth of his daughter. He missed the previous meeting when his mother passed away, leading to a barrage of condolences but not much information on why another member of the council, Mr. Carp (played in flashback by Ian Barford) suddenly lost his Council seat. And when Mr. Peel looks for the minutes to fill him in on what occurred the week before, they are nowhere to be found, apparently not “prepared for distribution,” despite the sure-footed competence of the carefully quiet council clerk Ms. Johnson (Brittany Burch).
Following his conscience, and his function, Mr. Peel peels away at the story, using his knowledge of obscure bureaucratic notation to pry loose the events of the previous week, which involves a larger history, which as we learn, is not about truth but power.
And this, in the end, is how Letts manages to make this play all about Trumpism without being the slightest bit about Trump. The President goes unmentioned; the play would exist had he not been elected (the first draft was completed shortly after the election). And yet … this play doesn’t just fit the moment, it goes a certain way toward explaining in human — if not pleasant — terms, why when certain stories are exposed as distortions or even blatant untruths, they are only told more forcefully. In a world where Trump becomes president, the truth of “The Minutes” is laid bare: winning means controlling the underlying myths that govern our community interactions, while losing means oblivion.