Monday, April 18, 2022

The Disintegration of the American Theatre: A Report from the Front

The cast of The Minutes, the new play by Tracy Letts at New York's Studio 54.

This is a review of The Minutes. It includes spoilers.

For the first half of its ninety-minute running time (sans intermission), Tracy Letts’s new play The Minutes (at Studio 54) is an inconsequential but frequently hilarious chronicle of a meeting of the government of a small town called Big Cherry located in an unspecified state. Working on David Zinn’s evocative set, the fine director Anna D. Shapiro – whose Broadway credits include Letts’s August: Osage County as well as The Motherfucker with the Hat and the beautiful 2014 revival of Of Mice and Men – and a flawless cast flesh out the idiosyncrasies, the long-festering petty tensions and the various ineptitudes of this motley group, two of whom (played by Blair Brown and the delightful Austin Pendleton, whose timing is both eccentric and unequalled) have served on the town council for decades. There are three main points of focus. One is the attempt of Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy) to obtain funding for an accessible fountain in the town center, which goes down because hardly anyone in the room has any interest in Hanratty’s spirit of inclusiveness: as Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), the most forthrightly insensitive person in the room, expresses it, the definition of “disabled” is an inability to do things that “normal” people have no trouble with. The second is the proposal of Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman) to institute a game called Lincoln Smackdown for the annual town heritage festival in which attendees try to knock down someone dressed as Abraham Lincoln (who, in real life, had no connection to Big Cherry). Meanwhile the newest addition to the council, Mr. Peel (Noah Reid of the TV series Schitt’s Creek), who missed the last meeting because he was out of town for his mother’s funeral, is struggling to catch up but hits a brick wall: another member has been unaccountably ousted, and he can’t get anyone to tell him why. Equally mysteriously, the town clerk (Jessie Mueller) has not distributed the minutes from the previous week that might explain his absence. Whenever Peel tries to stop the proceedings and address the mystery, the mayor (played by Letts himself) shuts him down on one pretext or another.

The ominous undercurrent in what starts out unapologetically as a Preston Sturges-style satirical comedy of small-town manners is accentuated by the unending rainstorm outside the windows and the brief recurring blackouts that the council members attribute to an antiquated electric grid. (Brian MacDevitt designed the effective lighting.) And the audience ought to guess that in a play produced in 2022, the fact that very few among a crew of elected officials even comprehend the need for wheelchair-bound citizens to get access to a public water fountain can’t be merely a tossed-off detail. Still, we can hardly be ready for the second half, when the play goes bonkers. First, Peel’s admission that, as a relatively recent arrival to Big Cherry, he has never heard of the most glorious moment in the town’s history, a heroic battle against a violent native uprising, prompts everyone else in the room to re-enact it in a burlesque – utterly unlike any preceding scene – that suggests an SNL send-up of a high school historical pageant. (Not a single member of the expert ensemble escapes embarrassment in this sequence.) Then the play turns deadly serious while, in a flashback that dramatizes the undistributed minutes, the absentee Mr. Carp (Ian Barford) reveals what he has learned, through painstaking research, about the true story of the battle and the origins of the town.

Since The Minutes is predicated on this twist in the second half, under most circumstances critical tact would prohibit me from revealing it. But there’s simply no way to get at just how appalling the last forty-five minutes of the play are without detailing that twist – hence the spoiler alert at the top of this review. It turns out that the “battle,” preserved in a long-buried oral account by the only survivor, was an unprovoked massacre of mostly native women and children by soldiers, one of whom brought back severed ears of his juvenile victims as souvenirs; and that the name Big Cherry, long presumed to be a reference to nature (odd in that there are no cherry trees in the vicinity), is an abbreviation of a racist epithet for native Americans. Did I use the words “inconsequential” and “hilarious” in my opening paragraph? Oh, no, no. Those are descriptors for the writing of the Tracy Letts who wrote the first half before he morphed into the bloviating pedant responsible for the second half.

But hold on – I haven’t told you everything. The reason that the outraged Carp’s “tenure” has been “terminated,” in the euphemistic language in the minutes, is that a wealthy local businessman, the brother of one of the council members (Jeff Still), his partner in graft, murdered him with the approval or more likely the cooperation of everyone else in the room. After the mayor delivers a speech to the astonished Peel about the sacrifices we make to morality in order to provide a safe, cushioned future for our children that ends in an affirmation of the role of savagery in American history, and Peel leaves the building in horror, the mayor and his council dip their hands in a pot of blood placed conveniently downstage (that neither Peel nor, apparently, Carp ever noticed before) and smear their faces before breaking into a kind of dance. We might wonder why no one bothers to go after Peel, who’s obviously as much a threat to the perpetuation of Big Cherry’s fake legacy as Carp was – but a few moments later he reappears, having suddenly been convinced by the mayor’s oratory, or more likely by his not-so-veiled threat against his baby daughter. We also might wonder why the single Black member, Blake, isn’t even momentarily unsettled by the town’s deep-dyed commitment to racism.

You can see the influence of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” but from its opening paragraph Jackson constructs her classic short story as a perverted folk fable and carefully prepares us for the descent into horror and savagery. The Minutes is arrant nonsense, not that it makes a damn bit of difference. At Saturday night’s performance the audience dutifully rose to its feet, because in the current theatrical era, crudeness, crassness, an abandonment of the most basic structural principles, blatant contradiction and plot holes you can sink a tractor in, not to mention the most offensive kind of emotional manipulation, don’t matter as long as the playwright turns out to be working toward an affirmation of our current view of ourselves. That it’s an unmitigated ugly view rather than the prettified one of earlier eras doesn’t make this play any less phony or its finger wagging any more acceptable. And that a group of talented theatre people worked hard and with considerable skill to put The Minutes together doesn’t redeem it. It’s a deeply shameful piece of work.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.



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