RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
We're going to hear now about a new play by Tracy Letts. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 2008 for his Broadway hit "August: Osage County." His new work, "The Minutes," is at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. It's about politics, the secrets government officials hide and the fraught compromises they often make in the course of doing business. But as Dan Weissmann reports, the minutes has nothing to do with Washington politics.
DAN WEISSMANN, BYLINE: Tracy Letts says by the time the 2016 election happened, he was almost finished writing "The Minutes."
TRACY LETTS: It was a job of work to keep the blinders on and not make the play about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or - actually, to escape into the world of the play during that political moment was great, was solace.
WEISSMANN: Steppenwolf's artistic director, Anna Shapiro, says "The Minutes" was solace for her, too. Letts sent her the play just a few weeks after the election.
ANNA SHAPIRO: And I read it, and I laughed out loud really hard for the first time since the first week of November. And then I cried at the end.
WEISSMANN: "The Minutes" is a dark comedy with echoes of Shirley Jackson's classic horror story "The Lottery." That's the one where everyone in a village gathers for an annual ritual which ends with stoning one of their neighbors to death. Letts says he brought up Jackson's story with the cast during rehearsals.
LETTS: I've referenced "The Lottery" and I've referenced "Rosemary's Baby" a couple of times.
WEISSMANN: The ritual in "The Minutes" is a city council meeting in a medium-size Midwestern town. A new council member, a young transplant from the coast, has just come back from burying his mother. He missed a meeting while he was gone, and he quickly gets the sense that it might have been eventful. As people trickle in, he asks another council member.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE MINUTES")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Peel) Did something happen with Mr. Carp?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Blake) Who have you spoken to?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Peel) What do you mean? No one.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Blake) You've spoken to no one?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Peel) I'm speaking to you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Blake) You've spoken - to no one.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Peel) I just got back.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Blake) But you said you heard about Carp.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Peel) Just now, coming in, I overheard some talk about Mr. Carp.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Blake) You really don't know anything.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Peel) I really don't.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Blake) Carp is no longer on the council.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Peel) What?
WEISSMANN: It takes most of the play to get the unsettling answer to that question - what happened to Mr. Carp? It plays out in one long scene, the council meeting, with most of the cast on stage the whole time. Ensemble-playing is Steppenwolf's specialty. And Letts, who's also an actor, has been a member of the company for 15 years. "The Minutes" is his seventh play to premiere here. It was Steppenwolf's production of "August: Osage County" that ran on Broadway for a year and a half. He says the company's process is crucial to how his plays develop.
LETTS: My plays here are prodded, tested, questioned by people who are - they're all very well versed in interrogating a new play.
WEISSMANN: Some of those people choose to work with Steppenwolf even when they can get bigger paychecks and bigger audiences elsewhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION")
WILLIAM PETERSEN: (As Gil Grissom) My name's Gil Grissom. I work in criminalistics.
WEISSMANN: That's the voice of William Petersen, who starred in the hit TV show "CSI." Petersen is a Chicago-area native and a Steppenwolf ensemble member. He first performed with the company more than 35 years ago. He plays the mayor in "The Minutes" and says taking the role was an easy decision.
PETERSEN: I felt that it had meaning and impact. And it was entertaining. And it allowed us to look at ourselves in a different way than we have been over the last 12 months.
WEISSMANN: It's Petersen's character, the mayor, who ultimately allows the truth to come out.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE MINUTES")
PETERSEN: (As character) Good evening, everyone, and welcome. Madame clerk, will you please call the roll?
WEISSMANN: What happened to the missing council member and why? The answer involves community complicity in a creation myth, one that hides how the town was really founded and on whose backs. The young councilman is appalled, but the mayor makes a pitch. You're a new dad. Before you commit to rocking this boat, remember - your daughter's in it, too. The mayor gets the play's best lines, and playwright Tracy Letts says that's the point.
LETTS: It's easy to vilify people for their ideas. It's easy to demonize them. I was more interested in the idea that, well, let's listen to his vision of the world, test it. See if you agree or if you disagree. Are you complicit or not complicit?
WEISSMANN: "The Minutes" will test Chicago audiences with that uncomfortable question through January 7. Then there's been talk of moving the play to Broadway. For NPR News, I'm Dan Weissmann.
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