By Carol Rocamora . . .

What just happened?!!!!!

That’s what you’ll say, as you emerge, shaken, from Studio 54, where The Minutes, a stick of dramatic dynamite by Tracy Letts, is now exploding nightly.

It all starts benignly – in the city council room of a small town called Big Cherry somewhere in provincial America. Its nine members have gathered with the Mayor (played by Letts himself) for their weekly meeting.  The agenda includes expressions of condolence for Mr. Peel (Noah Reid), one of the council members whose mother is recently deceased.  Parking issues are raised by the pugnacious Mr. Oldfield (Austin Pendelton).  A plan for construction of handicapped access to the town fountain is proposed.  The high-vaulted hall where the meeting takes place (designed by David Zinn) lends an institutional normality to the scene.

(l-r) TRACY LETTS as Mayor Superba and NOAH REID as Mr. Peel

But something is “off”.  Peals of thunder disrupt the meeting; the electric lights keep on flickering, ominously.  One of the councilmen is not present (Mr. Carp) – and no one will say why.  And the minutes of the previous week’s meeting are allegedly missing.

What has begun as an amusing, absurdist satire on provincial bureaucracy becomes much darker, as we plunge deeper and deeper into the hidden secrets of an “Our Town” gone wrong, terribly wrong.

That truth starts to unravel as the council begins to discuss the “Big Cherry harvest festival,” an annual event commemorating the so-called Battle of Mackey Creek, the town’s seminal myth and source of pride.  Spontaneously, the council members rise and reenact the story of how, centuries ago, a white girl was captured by a local Native American tribe and ultimately rescued by a militia led by a heroic captain.  As local mythology has it, “The Town of Big Cherry Was Saved.”  

(l-r) JESSIE MUELLER as Ms. Johnson and NOAH REID as Mr. Peel.

That reenactment – featuring the members of the cast in an outrageous choreography  (by Ty Defoe) –  is absolutely hilarious.  But, thanks to Mr. Peel’s persistence, the moment arrives when the council finally votes to read the minutes of last week’s meeting, whose contents (it turns out) have till now been blocked by the Mayor.  In a flashback to that meeting, the true and terrible story behind The Battle of Mackey Creek is uncovered by Mr. Carp (Ian Barford), who has diligently researched its origins from the last remaining Native American resident of the town.  

For fear of a spoiler, I dare not expose Mr. Carp’s discovery  – nor the wild and frightening denouement, brilliantly staged by Anna D. Shapiro.  Suffice it to say, this is a play about the history of racism in America, its legacy, and the suppression of the truth that is threatening to devastate our democracy. 

Tracy Letts –  as both actor and author  – offers a powerful performance, as well as daring, disturbing new play.  He is supported by a superb cast, with notable performances by Austin Pendelton (one of New York theatre’s treasures) and Blair Brown as Ms. Innes, a clueless councilwoman. Jessie Mueller plays the role of Ms. Johnson, the council’s administrator,  with a deftly droll deadpan.  Noah Reid’s entertaining, straight-man performance as Mr. Peel (“I know a little Latin, because I am a dentist!”) devolves into a profile in courage, as he persists in the cause to uncover the truth.   As Mr. Karp, Ian Barford proves to be the conscience of the play.  

What begins as a hilarious, absurdist farce devolves into a dark surreal satire on the perilous state of truth in our democracy, still struggling to come to terms with the past.   It’s not accidental that the football team of Big Cherry is called “The Savages.”

The Minutes, by Tracy Letts, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, now playing at Studio 54 (254 West 54 St. NYC) – limited run thru July 24, run time 90 minutes –

Photos: Jeremy Daniel

Lead Photo: Noah Reid (pictured center) with (l to r): Jessie Mueller,Jeff Still,Tracy Letts, Cliff Chamberlain