Steppenwolf Theatre(Downstairs)

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The Minutes

At the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – “The Minutes,” the new Tracy Letts play at the Steppenwolf Theatre, runs about 95 minutes without an intermission and for the first half of the evening the playwright is having some fun with the characters who make up the city council of Big Cherry (state unidentified).

But Letts subtly shifts narrative and emotional gears in the final scenes. Instead of chuckling with condescension at all those oddballs on stage, the spectators sit mesmerized and increasingly disturbed. I don’t recall when I last saw an audience leave a theater so quiet and unsettled.

The play is a real-time meeting of the Big Cherry city council at their weekly meeting. Mayor Superba presides over the membership of eight councilpersons (Mr. Carp, a ninth member, is mysteriously missing, about whom more later).

The council attempts to move through an agenda of trivialities and side issues (who gets the suddenly available parking space, how to dispose of bicycles being stored in the town ‘s locker, renovating a fountain in the town park). Then Mr. Peel, the newest council member, starts making procedural waves. The minutes of last week’s meeting are not available and Mr. Peel wonders why. The council people evade direct response to Mr. Peel’s insistent queries about Mr. Carp’s whereabouts. Beneath all the lightweight chatter about the town’s annual heritage festival and other civic business, the atmosphere turns sinister as the council unites in a menacing front against Mr. Peel’s insistent and obviously inconvenient questions.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

By the end of the evening, Letts has reshaped his play from a light satire on small town American life and politics to a grim moral fable. The moral dilemma is focused on the choice Mr. Peel must make just before the final blackout ,and his decision is unnerving and probably regrettably inevitable.

Letts takes risks in his narrative. The audience is lulled into believing the narrative will be realistic and humorous for 95 minutes. But in one scene, the council suddenly reenacts for Mr. Peel’s information a battle between Indians and town citizens in the 19th century. The council performs the historical episode with choreographed precision and just as suddenly returns to the present moment. Talk about bizarre and unexpected, but it works.  The final scene is surreal and expressionistic in its intensity, ending in a blackout that leaves the viewers dazed.

“The Minutes” is actually just a variation of the conventional “town with a dirty secret” plot. Examples that come to mind include Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and the Spencer Tracy motion picture “Bad Day at Black Rock.” In such vehicles the characters are all audience high, inviting the viewer to identify with the men and women seated behind the council table, an identification that may make thinking and attentive viewers squirm in their seats.

The Letts play confronts Mr. Peel (the only positive character and the audience’s surrogate in the play) with a life changing choice. In the abstract, the choice should be a no brainer. In real life, the decision is loaded with implications that would make even an outwardly honorable man like Mr. Peel waver. Mr. Carp elected to take the moral high road. We are never explicitly told his fate but it’s safe to say the man has attended his last city council meeting.

          Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

“The Minutes” has much of the flavor of “Twelve Angry Men,” the movie about 12 men deliberating a murder case in a sweltering New York City jury room. Both plays are confined to a single setting. Both bring together a collection of characters who in everyday life wouldn’t be natural associates. Mr. Oldfield, the cranky senior member of the council has nothing in common with Ms. Matz, a ditzy councilwoman who apparently forgot to take her meds before the meeting.

But they all close ranks to confront a danger to their collective well being. The moral issue at hand is all the more troublesome because the Steppenwolf staging sells the question so persuasively. The play is set to open on Broadway in the spring and it would be a shame if a single member of the Steppenwolf cast was omitted from the New York City ensemble in favor of a bigger box office name.

The local cast does feature a celebrity name in William Petersen, who plays the mayor with much authority. Kevin Anderson has built a name for himself in American theater and his portrait of Mr. Breeding (many of the characters have peculiar names) is a model of a not-too-bright bully. And Sally Murphy is funny and spacey as the meds lady.

A couple of local performers form the core of the narrative. Brittany Burch plays the young council clerk, the character who holds the key to the council secrets, as we learn near the end of the play. Her stoical manner doesn’t conceal the feeling that this young lady knows more than she’s divulging and her cool presence is riveting. Cliff Chamberlain is really the engine who drives the play as the inquisitive Mr. Peel, a man who senses there are matters beneath the surface in that council chamber that urgently need exploring.

Ian Barford has just one scene as Mr. Carp but for that scene he owns the stage with a long and chilling monologue. The remainder of the ensemble consists of Francis Guinan, Danny McCarthy, James Vincent Meredith, Penny Slusher, and Jeff Still—all flawless.

Anna D. Shapiro is the resourceful director who makes every part of the script fit smoothly, no matter how radical the shift in mood. The designers are full partners in the success of the production. David Zinn’s single set is a perfect recreation of a sober government meeting chamber. Ana Kuzmanic designed the costumes, Brian MacDevitt the lighting, and Andre Pluess the sound design and original music. Dexter Bullard gets choreographer credit, though there is no dancing but much orchestrated movement.

Letts has built a major reputation as a dramatist for plays that combine psychological and physical violence with dark humor. Consider “Killer Joe,” “Bug,” and the Pulitzer prizewinning “August: Osage County.” But nothing in his canon is quite like “The Minutes” in its satire, suspense, and “Twilight Zone” moments of fantasy. “The Minutes” also continues Letts’s record of writing brilliant showcasing roles while expanding his narrative palette.  “The Minutes” may or may not succeed on Broadway but it certainly has given the Chicagoland theater a show to treasure.

        The show gets a rating of 

        “The Minutes” runs through January 7 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $105. Call 312 335 1650 3000 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

Contact Dan at:  ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com                         November  2017

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