I can’t tell you more about the secret history of Big Cherry except to say it is gruesome and surely distressingly common. The American story most of us have been taught to treasure is full of similar horrors. They require revealing — and so does the furious backlash that inevitably greets attempts to do so. You need only look at state laws, like one in Texas, aiming to restrict history texts to white-triumphalist narratives, or certain responses to the 1619 Project, to know that questioning our past can be a dangerous business. “The Minutes” shows how uprooting foundational stories can feel to some otherwise reasonable people like tearing their hearts out. They would rather tear out someone else’s.
But even with nothing but admiration for what Letts is trying to do, and for his choice to engage the tools of genre to do it, I have many questions about the way it plays out for an audience. As directed by his frequent collaborator Anna D. Shapiro, “The Minutes” doesn’t quite nail its U-turn from expert comedy to jaw-dropping horror, which it tries to finesse by inoculating the first half of the play with toxins from the second. Occasional flashes and sizzles and blinks (lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by André Pluess) interrupt the bureaucratic satire with premonitory alarm. Flares of apparently unmotivated aggression — two councilmen, arguing about the Lincoln Smackdown, get into a smackdown of their own — suggest the irrational eruption of evil to come.
These staging clichés and comic bits, often at the cost of character logic, do not really prepare us for the play’s awful revelations — and perhaps it is exactly Letts’s intention that we not be prepared. Who ever is?
Still, in trying to use purely theatrical means to avoid the traps of didacticism that so many well-intentioned plays fall into, “The Minutes” instead falls into the trap of bad taste. The council’s engagement in racist pageantry — even Mr. Blake, the sole Black member (K. Todd Freeman), happily participates — makes a very uncomfortable point when done for laughs. I question whether the story earns the right to return to similar imagery later, this time seriously.
I am not arguing against bad taste in general, and it may even serve here as a cautionary element, at least for white people: Don’t try this racism at home. Yet I couldn’t keep my mind from drifting to the feelings “The Minutes” might arouse among Native Americans, whether in the audience or not. Would it feel like their cultures were, once again, being borrowed and distorted to make someone else’s point? Would the trade-off be worth it?
This being the kind of play you think a lot about afterward, I kept replaying those questions long after it was over, measuring it against my own reactions to theatrical tropes of Jewishness and gayness, revising and re-revising my opinion of its merits. You may, too.
Ultimately, I came to feel that if it is the theater’s main business to mirror who we are — to act, like the minutes of a meeting, as an absolute record of what we say and how we behave — then “The Minutes” does what a play aimed mostly at white people must. It shows us how we are starting to understand, but still mostly failing to accept, that our privileges are tied to a history of denying them to others. I think it is warning us, in its own dramatic way, to do better, before the minutes, as they will, harden into millenniums.
Through July 24 at Studio 54, Manhattan; theminutesbroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.