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Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Minutes
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Review by John Olson|

Also see John's review of Escape to Margaritaville

Jeff Still, Danny McCarthy, Cliff Chamberlain,
William Petersen, James Vincent Meredith

Photo by Michael Brosilow
In the wake of our nation's widespread dissatisfaction with the results of last year's elections, we have heard calls for more of us to run for office—at any level, be it local, state or national. Tracy Letts' new play The Minutes, now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf prior to an announced March opening on Broadway, may encourage more people to do that. Or discourage them. Letts, who won a Pulitzer and a Tony for his three-hour drama of a dysfunctional family in August: Osage County, here presents a dysfunctional city council (is there any other kind?). At least that's what it appears to be for the first hour or so of its 100 intermissionless minutes. As it turns out, Letts has something bigger to say, and lest I spoil his carefully constructed mystery, I won't say exactly what that is.

The title refers to the missing meeting minutes of the October 25th meeting of the city council of the fictitious city of Big Cherry (state not specified, but hints suggest the Dakotas or Minnesota). The November 1 meeting is about to begin and new council member Mr. Peel (Cliff Chamberlain) is an early arrival, hoping to catch up on whatever business he missed at the previous week's meeting while he was on the West Coast at his mother's funeral. Whomever he asks avoids the question and Peel—an affable young dentist who appears to have run for office mostly as a way to network and make acquaintances in his new community—lets it go for a while.

Letts' assortment of characters on the council include a range of people from the well-meaning to the self-serving and the clueless, all expertly played by this cast of Steppenwolf ensemble members and returning guest artists. The meeting is led by Mayor Superba (William Petersen), a reasonably patient and tolerant sort with years in the job who tries to keep the council business moving in spite of the idiosyncrasies of his council members. There's the idealistic Mr. Hanratty (the superb young character actor Danny McCarthy) who wants to rebuild the town's fountain square so the bottom can be viewed by the differently abled, such as his sister. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mr. Breeding, played by Kevin Anderson as a deliciously insensitive boor whose reaction to Mr. Hanratty is "Aren't there some things that those people just can't do?"

On the clueless side of the spectrum are Mr. Oldfield (the always reliable Francis Guinan), the longest-serving member of the council whose main concern is snagging a better parking space for the weekly council meeting, and Ms. Innes (Penny Slusher), a more timid sort. Letts could be accused of ageism in his depiction of these two as feeble, if he wasn't such an equal opportunity offender—and if the younger, heavily medicated Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy) wasn't equally ineffective. Effectiveness is not a hallmark of this council, anyway. Its sole African-American member, Mr. Blake (a slippery James Vincent Meredith), has a proposal to introduce cage fighting as an attraction at the town's annual Heritage Festival—with an eye toward making it a permanent fundraising enterprise for the community. Then there's Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still), also the town's sheriff, whose interests seem to be only to maintain his own power and make a few bucks off the city on the side. Brittany Burch is Ms. Johnson, the efficient, humorless secretary who takes notes and writes the meeting minutes.

Finally, there's a missing council member—Mr. Carp. Where is he anyway? He seems to have been purged from the council. Whenever Ms. Johnson absent-mindedly calls his name during a roll call, she immediately follows it with a "my bad." Peel becomes increasingly suspicious, but none of the others will say what happened. We eventually find out by way of a flashback in which we see Mr. Carp (Ian Barford) at the fateful October 18 meeting.

This council meeting is played on an impressively hyper-realistic set by Walt Spangler that nails the look of an elegant 1930s government structure, possibly a WPA project. Brian MacDevitt's lighting recreates the harsh overhead fluorescent lighting we'd find in such a building—with frequent power outages punctuated by Andre Pluess's sound effects highlighting the old building's electrical problems. Pluess also gives us a particularly nasty-sounding rainstorm outside, suggesting that, however harsh conditions might be inside the council room with this collection of incompetents and ineffectuals, the world outside isn't is appealing either. The authentic middle-class and Midwestern look of Ana Kuzmanic's costumes add to the establishment of time and place.

Letts' satire of politics shows this variety of motivations for serving in elected representative government to be largely disappointing—prestige, power, profit—or in the case of the older members, maybe just habit. His trademark dark humor and cynical wit are put to effective use with this topic and these characters—and is well-served by his frequent director Anna D. Shapiro. As it turns out, though, Letts has something more to say about American society than the mild satire of the play's first two-thirds. Letts, whose previous writing has been realistic, reveals his thesis in the final minutes of this play with a technique that is not that. His intent in changing technique may be to shock audiences into paying attention to a conclusion about America and Americans that some may find difficult to accept. Others may find his point—that the pettiness and self-serving actions by the members of this small-city council are indicative of a larger flaw in American society—is old news. This writer falls into the latter camp and finds Letts' climactic device a bit labored and calling attention to its artifice rather than to its point.

Either way, The Minutes is a worthwhile 100 minutes, particularly for anyone who enjoys Letts' voice and his critical, but not hopeless, eye in looking at some of our worst qualities.

The Minutes will play through January 7, 2018, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted Sr., Chicago. For tickets or more information, visit or call 312-335-1650.

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