‘Stage Door’ is our new theater column. Because this is a film site, each column ends with related movie suggestions for those who don’t have access to live theater. – Editor
Mayor (Tracy Letts) and a new city councilman (Noah Reid) make small talk early in “The Minutes”
Even if you don’t attend live-theater, you’re probably fond of Tracy Letts. He pops up as recurring characters on acclaimed TV shows (Homeland, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty) and is one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors in prestige flicks like Ford Vs Ferrari, The Big Short, Little Women, and Lady Bird (for which he should have been Oscar-nominated). His talents don’t end there. Unfair as it may be, some people are great at everything. In addition to being a terrific actor, theatergoers know him as a prolific Tony and Pulitzer-winning playwright. His ninth original play, The Minutes, concludes its Broadway run this coming Sunday so you have one week left to see it…
Though Letts does not often act in his own plays, he is the literal central figure (though not the protagonist) on the stage of The Minutes. The setting is a city countil meeting in the small fictional town of “Big Cherry”. Letts is seated smack dab in the middle of the action as the presiding Mayor Superba. His city council members and employees are stretched out on either side of him in a semi circle facing the audience. With one notable exception, the entire cast is on stage for almost all of the play’s 90 minutes. We watch as the meeting unfolds in real time.
The main order of a business is an expensive renovation of the town’s fountain that Mr Hanratty (Danny McCarthy, Somebody Somewhere) has spearheaded to make it wheelchair accessible. Our protagonist is a dentist and new father Mr Peel who is the newest member of the council. Noah Reid of Schitt’s Creek fame, is quite moving in the role, and in a case of life imitating art, the newest member of the cast as well (Armie Hammer performed the role in 2020 previews before COVID-19 delayed the official opening for two years). As the play begins, Mr Peel is trying to get his bearings since he’s not only merek new but he missed the previous meeting attending his mother’s funeral. Something big obviously went down, involving councilman Carp (Ian Barford), but everyone is avoiding answering his questions directly. But why?
“Democracy is messy” the Mayor proclaims late in the play (in a moment of self-absolving defense). The statement is true enough but the magic of The Minutes, which surely sounds too dry to be involving in any short description (a challenge for the marketing team!), is not the messiness we witness but the underlying madness of this stew of personal agendas, bureaucratic rules, hive-mind delusions, and shameless ableism and racism.
Despite the organizing mundanity of its action and central mystery (why is everyone avoiding the topic of Mr Carp?), the play frequently descends into messy chaos as well as spinning into little ‘not-this-again!’ curlicues of drama as Mr Peel is like a dog with a bone when it comes to his unanswered questions. Letts play manages to braid all of the entertaining chaos and stubborn mysteries expertly into a damning thesis statement, despite committing to the play’s real time mundanity and only slightly heightened realism. Does it stick its suddenly surreal discomfitting landing ? The answer will be different for each audience member. And why shouldn’t it be? We’re all, in our way, complicit in the actions (and inactions) of our local governments.
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P.S. Tony Nominations. The Minutes was nominated for just one Tony (albeit the top prize, Best Play) which sells its expert ensemble short. In fairness to the voters, though, how to single anyone out in a true ensemble play with a cast this large and talent? Still it’s a shame that the voters didn’t find a way to honor enduring 82 year old character actor, playwright, and acting teacher Austin Pendleton (My Cousin Vinny, Catch-22, The Front Page) who plays the oldest and longest-serving councilman. Pendletong wrings numerous laughs from his barely-listening but also hard of hearing Mr Oldfied, who has long since phoned-in his civil service. One more shout out: Tony-winner Jessie Mueller (The Post, Candy), making her first non-musical performance on Broadway, also proves that she’s more than just her glorious pipes with a wonderfully invested turn as the uber competent city clerk; it’s the kind of no-nonsense role that might fade into the background in less committed or less-talented hands.
[The Minutes runs through Sunday, July 24th at Studio 54. Discount tickets are available through Today Tix and from TDF/TKTS.]
Adjacent Movie Recommendations
Letts has written nine plays to date: The Minutes, Linda Vista, Mary Page Marlowe, The Stretch, Superior Donuts, Man from Nebraska, and three which have been adapted to screen (in chronological order) Bug, Killer Joe, and August: Osage County. Of the three film adaptations, the most artistically successful is surely Bug. It’s a good movie, but still nothing beats the visceral theatrical experience of that particular paranoid piece; if you ever get a chance to see it live (or any of his plays really) do not hesistate. But here we’re focusing on movies recommendations related to the play rather than its writer.
The Searchers (1956)
John Ford’s classic but ever-divisive western is referenced early in “The Minutes”. It’s a seemingly throwaway bit, with Mr Peel referencing Natalie Wood’s character “Debbie”. But for those who’ve seen The Searchers it won’t prove random at all and foreshadows some of the trouble that’s coming in the play. In the western Natalie Wood plays a white girl who has been living among the Comanches since she was abducted at 8 years of age. She’s the object of the titular search by her racist Uncle Ethan (John Wayne) who has been looking for her for years. [Available to rent from most services]
City Hall (2020)
Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman, is well known for illuminating government institutions, civil service, and local politics, through patient observation. As Glenn wrote in his review of City Hall.
Another filmmaker (one who wouldn’t be out there making 4 hour long movies while in their 90s) would probably be content to just follow Mayor Martin J. Walsh as he gives speeches to war veterans, stumps for the city as the best in the world for jobs growth or celebrate a world championship for the Red Sox; Wiseman is not them. He sends his camera out beyond the walls of the city hall, observing interior public housing meetings, lively community discussions about legal marijuana dispensaries in poor neighborhoods, school board meetings about class sizes, immigrant cooking classes, a garbage collection route and much more. He does so with minimal intrusion and unfussy camerawork work as usual, allowing them to unfold over long slabs of time.
[Available to stream on MUBI or Kanopy]
Waiting for Guffman (1997)
Tracy Letts voice — even in his plays that lean dramatic– is blisteringly dark and satirically funny. The absurdist caricature found in Christopher Guest’s gleeful mockumentaries are of a much different comic register. But one thing that Waiting for Guffman, Guest’s best film, has in common with The Minutes is the throughline of small town locals who are way too invested in their town’s ridiculous and probably apocryphal history. In Guffman we get a ‘not ready for Broadway’ musical within the mockumentary about the history of Blaine, Missouri as the citizens prepare for the sesquicentennial. In The Minutes this type of delusional local patriotism also revolves an upcoming annual festival and also leads to a performance within the performance, focusing ont\ the history of “Big Cherry”. [Available to rent on most services]