Thursday, November 23, 2017

Letts’ Look at Ourselves: Taking Its Time to Percolate, Steppenwolf's ‘The Minutes’ Stings With Sly Brilliance — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Minutes
a world premiere play
by Tracy Letts
directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 7

If we accept that Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior was an open secret for decades in Hollywood, why didn’t anybody say something sooner?

Clearly, given reports of the producer’s elaborate efforts to quash damning allegations, many—including women directly victimized by him—undoubtedly felt threatened to remain silent, and perhaps were coerced and/or compensated to do so.

Others likely felt that they lacked sufficient evidence or realistic channels to report Weinstein’s alleged sexual—and serial—misdeeds. Remember, for much of his reign of terror, alerting the world via Twitter or Facebook wasn't an option.

But as per screenwriter Scott Rosenberg’s screed alleging that “everybody f'ing knew” but—himself included—did nothing, many, many people kept mum out of self-interest.

Although it's repulsive that Weinstein--and now many others of his ilk--got away with what he did for so long even as a wide range of people were seemingly aware, this isn’t meant as condemnation, at least when considered on an individual level.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Let's say you're aware of repeated and believable insinuations that the president of your company is harassing, even abusing women, or embezzling money, or discriminating against minorities, or otherwise engaging in criminal practices.

What would you do? Or I?

Not theoretically but literally.

Especially if it meant, in all likelihood, that you would be disbelieved and threatened, perhaps even harmed. Or fired. Or even if not, that as a result your company would collapse and 1,000 people, including close friends of yours, would be out of work and unable to feed their families or have health insurance. Or that you would be terribly jeopardizing your own family's well-being.

As much as I would want to, I can't say I would open my mouth. 

Which isn't at all what Tracy Letts' latest play, The Minutes--now in a Steppenwolf world premiere under the direction of Anna Shapiro--is an acute sense.

It was obviously written well before the allegations about Mrssrs. Weinstein, Spacey, Rose, et. al, became public. Though given that Letts has appeared in many TV shows & films--including significantly in the current Lady Bird--and is married to an increasingly popular actress (Carrie Coon), the decades of whispers had likely reached his savvy ears.

On the surface, The Minutes is a 100-minute one-act comedy that chronicles the often farcical proceedings of the city council in fictional Big Cherry, a small town anywhere in the United States.

And with this show already slated to hit Broadway next year, much of the fun at Steppenwolf--for much of the show--is simply in watching several ensemble stalwarts and other wonderful actors verbally spar in the guise of their quirky, mostly oddly-named characters.

Within an astonishing set designed by David Zinn.

William Petersen of CSI fame is Mayor Superba, who feels like a venal, power-hungry figurehead--though far from Trumpian levels--as he runs the meeting with effrontery veiled as efficiency.

The always wonderful Francis Guinan (Mr. Oldfield), Penny Slusher (Ms. Innes) and Sally Murphy (Ms. Matz) provide comic relief as they bicker about parking spaces and struggle to remain awake and focused on the matters at hand.

It's great to see Kevin Anderson (Mr. Breeding) back on a Steppenwolf stage, as with Ian Barford (Mr. Carp) and James Vincent Meredith (Mr. Blake), the latter of whom offers a particularly wacky suggestion for a new attraction at the town's annual Heritage Festival.

The council's sense of shady ineptitude is abetted by Mr. Assalone (well-played by Jeff Still)--who repeatedly reminds the clerk Ms. Johnson (Brittany Burch) that the "e" at the end of his name isn't silent--while as Mr. Hanratty, Danny McCarthy brings a great sense of hyperkinetic unease.

Driving much of the play's narrative is Mr. Peel (a stellar Cliff Chamberlain), a new-to-town dentist and alderman who had missed the previous council meeting due to a family emergency and returns vaguely aware of happenings no one seems eager to divulge.

Per the play's title, the meeting minutes taken by clerk Johnson play a part in the mystery.

There is also an amusing enactment of a crucial moment in the town's history, gleeful for those familiar with the playwright's propensity for going "over the top."

Yet despite shrewd political satire that provides much laughter across many minutes of The Minutes, the play doesn't feel like a Letts' masterwork--he won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, which premiered at Steppenwolf, and I thought last year's Mary Page Marlowe was even better--until slyly, but quite profoundly, it does.

Theatrically, what unfolds demands that I be circumspect about specifics.

But given that it's a story as old as time, let's just say that people of a certain persuasion have mistreated and maligned those they perceive as unlike them, demanding--for individual and communal self-interest--the conformity and complicity to which I allude above.

I won't tell you more but will share that in a post-show discussion, Shirley Jackson's masterful short story "The Lottery" and William Holding's novel, Lord of the Flies, were cited as among Letts' inspirations, both thematically revolving around "going along with the crowd."

Just as much however, The Minutes made me think of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, in which a key character made a poor choice with deadly consequences, yet defends it by saying--not inaccurately--that his actions were financially essential for his family and also those of hundreds of men who worked for him.

Like in All My Sons, the brilliance of The Minutes comes not so much from what we see happen onstage--though much of it winds up being quite inspired--but due to the central question it asks not just of its characters but of ourselves:

What would we do? 

Not just theoretically, or in posting PC sentiments on social media, but if it means true sacrifice or even hardship or danger.

Minutes to ask; our entire shared history to ponder.

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