The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tracy Letts skewers America’s shames in stunning debut of ‘The Minutes’

The playwright’s scaldingly funny satire opens on Broadway

Noah Reid, center, with, from left, Jessie Mueller, Jeff Still, Tracy Letts and Cliff Chamberlain in “The Minutes.” (Jeremy Daniel)
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NEW YORK — Tracy Letts has written a play that will be Ibsen-esque catnip for anyone who enjoys seeing the ruling class exposed for all its self-deceptions, indiscretions and hypocrisies.

That is to say: I adored it.

“The Minutes” had its official opening Sunday at Broadway’s Studio 54, in a juicily subversive production directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Taking place during a closed city council meeting in mythical Big Cherry in Almost Anystate, U.S.A., this sterling comedy-drama starts in unassumingly sedate fashion. Ninety minutes later, it explodes like a meticulously wrapped gift that had been hiding a live grenade. What unfolds in between is a scathing satire of the American way — which is to say, the official predilection for denial, denial, denial of the country’s historic sins, particularly as they concern the cruel treatment of its original inhabitants.

“Democracy’s messy,” Big Cherry’s mayor, played with impeccable control freakiness by stage and film actor Letts himself, opines to the council’s dissenting member, Mr. Peel (an outstanding Noah Reid). That declaration is a smokescreen for the ongoing effort to perpetuate Big Cherry’s Big Lie — concerning the town’s origin story — which playwright Letts exhilaratingly brings to light, point by mendacious point.

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There’s a hallowed tradition for this kind of story of malign civic behavior — and a hero who challenges the institutions that uphold it. Frank Capra gave us one on film, in Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith, who went to Washington and found it in need of a long lecture. Reginald Rose, in his 1950s drama “Twelve Angry Men,” offered up the lone juror who turns the tide against prejudice and injustice. The genre’s foundational drama debuted 140 years ago: In Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” conscientious Dr. Stockmann discovers that a Norwegian town’s spa waters have been making tourists sick — and the town seeks to destroy him for blowing the whistle.

Here, set designer David Zinn places us grandly, even affectionately, in the realistic government chambers of an average American city. Letts fills the council seats with a gallery of petty tyrants, fading hangers-on and close-minded guardians of their own best interests. They’re portrayed by an ensemble out of a director’s dreams. In mentioning several, I get to recall their wonderful performances: Jessie Mueller as council clerk Ms. Johnson, a survivor if there ever was one; Jeff Still as Mr. Assalone, the bullying local pol with his hands in too many tills; Blair Brown as Ms. Innes, the old-timer with a spine made of cellophane; Danny McCarthy as Mr. Hanratty, whose ideals extend only so far as the boundaries of his own family.

Then there is the play’s not-so-secret comic weapon: Austin Pendleton as senior council member Mr. Oldfield, a fossil who lives just this side of lucidity and whose No. 1 legislative priority is securing the building’s available dedicated parking space. Pendleton gets every laugh Letts tosses his way, like a cleanup batter who can handle any pitch. (K. Todd Freeman, Ian Barford, Cliff Chamberlain and Sally Murphy play the other council members, all to memorable effect.)

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“The Minutes” pokes at that sensitive area of American skin — predominantly White — that’s invested in a mythology of European virtue and buries a tarnished history of ethnic cleansing. It will doubtless infuriate those who rail against critical race theory, or anything asserting that America’s nation-building occurred without a heavenly seal of approval.

That sanctimonious posturing is enshrined in the Big Cherry Heritage Festival, a celebration whose entire rationale is undermined by a council member who has discovered the sordid truth of Big Cherry’s past. The council’s newest member, Mr. Peel, then learns that the minutes of the meeting at which the secrets were revealed have mysteriously been suppressed.

The excavation of the city’s rotten roots includes a marvelous interlude, orchestrated by Shapiro and choreographer Ty Defoe, that enlists the politicians in an elaborate reenactment of Big Cherry’s origin story (fans of Christopher Guest’s movies, particularly “Waiting for Guffman,” will recognize the kind of parody Letts is going for). Yes, for sure, a bit of urbane condescension spices Letts’s comedy, but small-town folkways and the affectations of community leaders are ripe for sendup. I started my journalism life many moons ago as a nightside reporter, covering town councils and planning and zoning boards in little towns in central New Jersey, and let me tell you: Letts’s portrait brought back many familiar episodes.

Letts is a playwright who reliably goes to extremes, whether in slasher stage comedies such as the great “Killer Joe” or histrionic melodramas, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County.” So the wildly theatrical denouement of “The Minutes” will come as no surprise to his fans. It makes for an ugly and shocking — but also wholly appropriate — adjournment to an electrifying meeting with America’s shame.

The Minutes, by Tracy Letts. Set, David Zinn; costumes, Ana Kuzmanić; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound and music, André Pluess; choreography, Ty Defoe. About 90 minutes. At Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.

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