Tracy Letts Talks About 'The Minutes,' His New Comedy of Menace on Broadway

After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID lockdown, Tracy Letts' play The Minutes, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, is set to open on Broadway at Studio 54, and having been closed during previews in 2020.

The top-flight ensemble cast features Ian Barford, Blair Brown, Cliff Chamberlain, K. Todd Freeman, Letts, Danny McCarthy, Jessie Mueller, Sally Murphy, Austin Pendleton, Noah Reid and Jeff Still. The play involves the day-to-day dealings of the Big Cherry city council, and the troubles that arise when a new member starts to ask some uncomfortable questions, like: Why is one member is gone and not to be spoken of, and why are the previous meeting's minutes nowhere to be found? In its four-year history, the play has managed to invite comparisons to Parks and Recreation and Rod Serling with a little bit of Alfred Hitchcock thrown in.

The Minutes, by the Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning Letts, is a comedy, that is if one defines comedy by the consistent laughter it evokes in audiences, but almost from the start there is an undercurrent of menace, which seems ready to surface at any moment. Letts talked to Newsweek about the evolution of the play, which premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in November 2017 and has changed some over the years, internally and externally.

Letts told Newsweek that The Minutes grew out of his observations of the 2016 presidential election: "I wrote this play in the summer of 2016. During the Hillary Clinton–Donald Trump presidential campaign, I was just thinking about the way we conduct our politics in this country and the moment we were politically."

That's not to say it is a political play in the agitprop sense. "The play is not about Trump." Letts told Newsweek. "I don't think we ever say 'Democrat' or 'Republican' anywhere in the play. But it was certainly inspired by our political moment at the time."

In fact, the play was still getting some rewrites as Letts talked with Newsweek, especially refining the play's shifts in tone and style. "These things are always in progress. What often happens in plays of mine, not always and not just my plays, but we go from a sort of hyper-realism to a more expressionistic moment. I think it's more about the way it makes it feel rather than what happens or any intellectual understanding of what happens. It moves from nice comedy to something a little darker and scarier."

Playwright vs. Actor

That Letts is both actor and playwright in his own play complicates matters a little, like: When there's a conflict between the playwright and the actor it makes one ask, "Who wins?"

Letts essentially calls it a draw: "It really is kind of a split-brain thing that has to happen. I mean, when I'm up there doing it, I'm really trying not to listen to the writing per se. I'm not watching another actor work and thinking, Oh, I need to give him this note.

"I'm just trying to hear what he's saying to me and trying to respond in the moment. And, yeah, sometimes I will go to the director with an actor need that doesn't have anything to do with what the writer wants."

The day after Letts' talk with Newsweek, the show had two rehearsals planned. "I'm going to act in the first run. And in the second run, the fellow who covers for me is going to get up and he's going to play the part. I'm going to sit out with Anna and watch him perform the show, and I'm really putting on my writer's hat. So it's a unique challenge. I have to say that the rule I have about not wanting to do both at the same time was also a young man's rule. I'm 56 years old now. It's like, 'Who gives a s**t? I'm going to be in my play. It's easier to do it this way.'"

This is the first place that Letts wrote in which he also acts but it wasn't planned that way. "I never had any burning desire to do it at all. I've never written things for me to act in, and I've never acted and things that I've written. I never wanted to combine the two because I didn't think I'd be as good at either job if I was doing both at the same time. And I'm probably not."

Actually, the role of Superba was not written for him, and he came to playing it in a circuitous way.

"The truth is," Letts told Newsweek, "we did do the play originally in Chicago, Steppenwolf Theatre, and I was not in the show. William Peterson was playing the part that I'm playing. And then when we came to Broadway, Bill didn't want to do it. He's got little kids in Los Angeles, and he didn't want to come to New York. So for personal reasons, he didn't come, and we scouted around for an actor. Frankly, a lot of actors who are my age, if they're appropriate and age appropriate, are working. And if they're not working, they don't necessarily embrace the joys of ensemble performance. In other words, they're a bit more attuned to star presentation, which is not really what we do. And so we finally got to a place on the list where I was like, No, I'll do it before I let that guy do it. So, here I am doing the play."

And in general, in spite of the wealth of talented and versatile actors available in the Steppenwolf company alone, Letts does not write with specific actors in mind. "I don't tend to do that. I've done some, but for the most part, it's like if I write with an actor in mind, then I also start writing with that actor's limitations in mind. So I tend to leave it a little more open."

New to the cast in The Minutes is Noah Reid, who is best known for playing Patrick Brewer on Schitt's Creek, as Mr. Peel. He replaces Armie Hammer. The most striking difference between the two actors is size. Hammer is well over 6 feet tall and Reid is about 5 feet, 9 inches. This changes things a little.

"I'm six-two or so. I don't know. I'm shrinking as I age, but Armie may be six-four, six five. And Noah is not that tall. He may be a little shorter than me. So yeah, my eyeline has changed a little bit. But we were talking, Anna Shapiro and I, a couple of days ago, and it's really changed the play.

"I mean, Armie—he's such a physical presence. He's such an impossible-looking person. He looks like a statue come to life. And for a play that is about a stranger who comes to town and here he is in this community, Noah looks like just another guy in the community. It changes the dynamics of the play in some ways, I hope in good ways.

"Every actor is different. Every actor brings their own thing to it. But I was not familiar with Noah's work; I have not watched Schitt's Creek. I've learned that there are two kinds of people: those who have watched Schitt's Creek and those who haven't. I have not, but my director had, and she insisted that he was the right guy for the job. I've worked with Anna for 30-plus years, so when she says that, I trust her. So we brought Noah in, and he's fantastic. He's such a presence—a simple actor with great comic timing and a delight to be with in the room. I've just really enjoyed doing this with him."

As Peel, Reid is also someone you might worry about in a strange or threatening situation as opposed to Hammer.

"It was an interesting change, and I'm really enjoying it. Noah does have a feeling of a bit more of an everyman. Armie Hammer—and I'd say this if he were part of the conversation right now—Armie Hammer's never going to be an everyman. That's not who he is."

Meeting Native American Issues Head-On

The Minutes also covers many Native American themes, issues and images, which can be sensitive topics. Letts told Newsweek that he had sought and gotten feedback from the Native American community on the play.

"As we've continued to work on the play, we have made sure that I've consulted with Native voices. There are no Native characters on stage, but we've consulted with those voices just to make sure that we're saying what we want to say in the way that we want to say it. And we've had very positive response to all that.

"Cultural appropriation is actually one of the themes that the play gets into a little bit. I feel pretty confident that we're not blindly stumbling into some problematic area. We've really stepped into the problematic area, and the play kind of takes it on. That's in some ways, what the play is all.about."

"I mean, interesting thing about a couple of Superba's speeches: In a way, he's our antagonist, but at the same time, he may state some truths that are uncomfortable at best. And that can push some buttons, we found, in audiences. Sometimes they feel a bit taken by surprise or even indicted by some of that language from him. But I'm a playwright. Somebody told me a long time ago that being a heretic is part of the job description.

Fear and Laughing in Big Cherry

As for how The Minutes might have changed in its two-year hiatus, Letts told Newsweek, "I think it's different. I hope that it's better, richer and deeper. And you know, a weird thing happens with these plays: The world changes around them, and it informs the play, changes it. The context actually has an impact on the way the audience receives the play. It's been a little frightening the last couple of years—not just because of COVID. We've seen so many things that the play addresses have come to the forefront in public consciousness, and it's been eye-opening."

"I always go into a play thinking: I don't need to do any rewrites, it's in good shape, I don't need to change a word. And then inevitably, we get in there in the room and the atmosphere and the actors. Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the ensemble people have known each other for 30 years, and they bring a lot to the table. They bring a lot of questions, a lot of ideas.

"Plays invariably change and evolve. And so, I've made some changes. I mean, if you saw the play two years ago, you may come back and say, 'Well, I can't tell anything's changed.' But yeah, I've made some changes for sure. I've not tried to do any updating. It's not like I've tried to write to the political moment, because I think then you are in danger of writing an agitprop play, and it's only appropriate for the moment we're in. It won't be viable two years from now.

"I hope what we've seen actually is that this play, without any changes, is a little more viable now than it was two years ago. But also that's a frightening thing."

Though if audiences are quaking in their boots, at least for 90 minutes or so at Studio 54 laughing in their seats.

The Minutes begins performances on April 2, with an official opening set for April 17 at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, For tickets and more information go to TheMinutesBroadway.com.

the minutes 2020 cast photo
The cast of Tracy Lett's new Broadway play, "The Minutes," a comedy about a small town with some big secrets. Above from left: Jeff Still, Sally Murphy, Cliff Chamberlain, Austin Pendleton, Jessie Mueller, Letts, Noah Reid, Blair Brown, K. Todd Freeman, Danny McCarthy and Ian Barford. Photo By Jeremy Daniel