The Minutes

Steppenwolf Theatre Company brought out the big guns for the world premiere of “The Minutes,” the latest from Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning ensemble member Tracy Letts. The playwright is a bonafide literary superstar, and the first production of his new work is rewarded with a commensurate cast.

I’ve reviewed 126 shows for EDGE Media Network in the Chicago market, and feel blessed to have witnessed this particular mix of talent sharing a stage. With direction from Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, six ensemble members and other well-known performers unite to deliver a hilarious and menacing look at the political dynamics of a fictional city council. Think “Parks and Recreation” with a side helping of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” “The Minutes” is quirky, current and frightening. Among other takeaway thoughts, I was left wondering what board of directors groupthink experience left Tracy Letts so jaded.

In press materials, the play is described as “a scathing new comedy about small-town politics and real-world power that exposes the ugliness behind some of our most closely-held American narratives while asking each of us what we would do to keep from becoming history’s losers.” Just a few weeks removed from Columbus Day, and on the cusp of the Christmas season and its white-centric Jesus narrative, “The Minutes” forces audiences to reckon with the historical fairy tales that have always buttressed America’s claims to Manifest Destiny.

What a fine group of actors Steppenwolf has assembled to tell this story. Kevin Anderson, Ian Bradford, Francis Guinan, James Vincent Meredith, Sally Murphy and William Petersen are the ensemble members drafted to “The Minutes'” dream team. Each embodies a small-town government caricature, starting with his or her unsubtle name.

Guinan for example, plays Mr. Oldfield, the council’s longest tenured member, and on the surface, a doddering man with parking space entitlement issues. Murphy’s Ms. Matz is a ditzy, disorganized young woman who shows up to meetings under the influence. Petersen’s Mayor Superba is a fittingly puffed up champion of ceremony and by-law.

During the first half of the 100-minute production (no intermission), these characters and others are played for laughs. And they get them. The chemistry between the seasoned performers is evident and satisfying. Seating Penny Slusher’s Ms. Innes next to Guinan’s Mr. Oldfield is a particularly directorial inspired choice. The pair of weary, disapproving elders have some of the best lines, and the give and take energy between Slusher and Guinan yields giggles even when their characters are silent.

Letts allows no pause between the plays farcical first half and the darkness that descends onstage in the second. Audience members who attended Tuesday night’s premiere were helpfully cautioned by Steppenwolf staff members to use the bathroom or take a second drink into the theater. No intermission means no time to catch one’s breath before the action takes a darker turn. When “Parks and Recreation” becomes “The Lottery.”

It would be an extra disservice in this case to reveal any spoilers, because the journey, however ultimately creepy, is its own reward. Suffice it to say the dramatic tension unravels through the municipal cipher of meeting minutes. And I can only thank the universe for allowing me to live long enough to see Francis Guinan dance Haka.

There are a few quibbles related to the script itself. Ms. Johnson’s herd mentality doesn’t jibe with the acts of record keeping resistance that propel the script toward its conclusion. A fine performance from Brittany Burch renders the deus ex machina diversion forgivable. And at the play’s end, Cliff Chamberlain’s Mr. Peel doesn’t count five offstage beats before re-emerging as a completely different person. I’d like to believe total character capitulation would be a somewhat more deliberate process.

But as I mentioned, these are mere quibbles and won’t prevent audience members from carrying “The Minutes” with them long after the curtain closes. This is an important work and theater lovers are unlikely to see this combination of artistry and talent again anytime soon. Any one of these actors can — and has — carried a production on his or her own. As a team, they are simply amazing.

“The Minutes” runs through January 7, 2018 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website

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Constellations

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Jessie Fisher (Marianne) and ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (Roland)

When the curtain rose on the press opening of playwright Nick Payne’s “Constellations,” now running at the storied Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, I indulged a cynical eye roll. Another meet cute rom com, even if this one features two pulchritudinous Brits (fair or not, dreck is a lot more tolerable when delivered with an English accent)? No. Not at all. The work, written by Nick Payne and directed by Jonathan Berry, is more than another take on “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus,” although there’s plenty of interstellar discussion.

The compact 80-minute production features just two characters, beekeeper Roland (Jon Michael Hill) and theoretical physicist Marianne (Jessie Fisher). They interact on a sparse but novel set that allows the audience to sink into the repetitively rich dialogue. That’s not an oxymoron. Several lines are repeated upwards of 10 times, yet each delivery feels fresh because it is, in fact, something new.

Confused yet? Press materials describe the plot as follows: “Roland and Marianne meet at a party. In that single moment, an unfathomable multitude of possibilities unfold. Their chance meeting might blossom into a meaningful relationship or a brief affair; it might lead to nothing at all.” “Constellations” in fact covers nearly every possible relationship pitfall (infidelity, lies, illness, unrequited devotion) or blessing (proposals, reunions, meaningful conversations with I-Thou transcendence) in rapid fire. And it works. Beautifully.

This owes no small debt to the gifts of the two leads. Hill and Fisher are tremendous. As immersed as I was in the stories of Roland and Marianne, the third wall was broken more than once to marvel at Fisher in particular. The actress’ ability to use her body and cadence to make the same phrase mean completely different things with a microsecond’s transition — stunning.

The intensity of both performances almost leaves one grateful (for the actors’ sake) that the production is brief. They sustain eye contact, move around each other in charged circles and are alternately desperate, overjoyed or bereft. There are few (if any) props. There’s nowhere to hide or take a restorative breath.

Early last week, just two days before the show officially opened, I lost a very close friend, very suddenly. In the midst of an acute grief process, ideas of infinite possibility, of alternate universes where our beloved sick and infirm enjoy happily ever after, are both torturous and becoming. But on whichever end of the misery/jubilation continuum audience members lie, “Constellations” will yield thought and discussion about the almost limitless range of human behavior and emotion.

In times of celebration, healthy egos bask in what feels like inevitable reward, while the more humble marvel at providence and good fortune. In tragedy, some interpret setback as their destiny while others obsess over what might have been done to alter the outcome. “Constellations” has a message for all of these demographics. Every experience is simultaneously pain and pleasure. As the production’s press release suggests, Steppenwolf’s early summer offering explores “a myriad of possible lifetimes… the extraordinary richness of being alive in the universe.”

The production is a cerebral champion. See it.

“Constellations” runs through July 3 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.