Broadway play is better than its ending

At its best, Tracy Letts’ new play “The Minutes” goes down like an old episode of “The Twilight Zone.” 

In a town hall meeting room, the lights turn off at meaningful moments and thunder booms dramatically outside. Every so often, a casually tossed-off remark will raise brows — suggesting that perhaps the utterer isn’t who he says he is. We nervously expect Rod Serling to tell us that we’re in “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.” Or even just Connecticut — but no such luck.

Theater review

Ninety minutes with no intermission. At Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.

Our theories of what’s actually going on at this city council meeting in the town of Big Cherry run the gamut: murder, aliens, cult worship, or just an old fashioned Broadway comedy. The long-lasting uncertainty of what genre “The Minutes” is makes Letts’ work, which opened Sunday night at Studio 54, a supremely clever piece of writing.  

Our high wears off, however, once we get our answer near the end of the play. And the truth is more obvious than we had hoped. While the conclusion admirably indicts the behavior of tony, solid-blue suburbs, it concerns an issue that America has grappled with for centuries. 

Adding to the old-hat vibe, the controversial final moment (one queasy woman ran out of the theater) believes that it’s bolder and more thought-provoking than it really is. 

Nonetheless the journey there is a mighty enjoyable one, filled with crackling dialogue, strong-willed Steppenwolf Theater performances and Letts’ compelling argument: that even the most minuscule of historical accounts, like say a meeting’s minutes, are essential to understanding what happened in the past.

Mayor Superba (Tracy Letts, center) leads the city council meeting, alongside Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still, left) and Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain). Jeremy DanielLetts — who’s America’s finest playwright/actor combo since Sam Shepard — appears in his play as the strict, rule-obsessed Mayor Superba. (Nothing is scarier than the ferocious Letts calling a meeting to order.) He and nine others sit behind microphones airing petty grievances that spiral into seriousness.

Tony-award winner Jessie Mueller is the stoic clerk; K. Todd Freeman is Mr. Blake, who has a hilarious plan to bring money to the city; the always excellent Blair Brown is the vindictive Ms. Innes; Cliff Chamberlain is dumb Mr. Breeding; Jeff Still is the chronically mispronounced Mr. Assalone; the germaphobe who’s probably a cat lady, Ms. Matz, is played by Sally Murphy; and Danny McCarthy as schlub-next-door Mr. Hanratty. 

Funniest of all is Austin Pendleton, whose Mr. Oldfield can barely hear and harps on his need for a better parking place. The hilarious actor’s outbursts and erratic pacing are perfection.

The cast of “The Minutes” on Broadway.Jeremy DanielAnd Noah Reid of “Schitt’s Creek” (who replaced Armie Hammer) sticks in everybody’s craw as a doe-eyed, but not-so-gullible new member of the council, who was absent from the last meeting and keeps demanding to see the minutes. But they’re nowhere to be found.

The secret of that document, we quickly learn, lies with Mr. Carp (Ian Barford), whose chair mysteriously sits empty for much of the hour and a half.

“The Minutes,” directed by Anna D. Shapiro, is a more pointedly political play from Letts than usual. “August: Osage County,” “Bug” and “Linda Vista” all flirted with issues, but didn’t go there like his latest does. I’m glad the playwright tries something new here, even if the fireworks don’t go off as planned.

I only wish the twist was aliens.

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