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by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Tracy Letts

At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650;; $20-$105. Runs through: Jan. 7

Big Cherry is a small city somewhere in oil country, although there are no regional dialects ( Western or Southern, say ) among the characters, among whom are the mayor ( William Petersen ), nine councilmen and the town clerk ( Brittany Burch ).

They are as congenial as any gang of self-interested and self-absorbed politicos, as they tend to minor city business and their own egos in a closed council session, presided over by the watchful but indulgent mayor. The thorn in their sides turns out to be Peel ( Cliff Chamberlain ), a newly elected councilman who is too idealistic and inquisitive for comfort ... until he's taught the rules of the governing game.

This new work by distinguished playwright Tracy Letts ( August: Osage County, Killer Joe, Superior Donuts and others ) is a skillfully constructed 100-minute comedy about very serious matters such as truth, corruption, self-interest and governance, and how they intersect.

Letts' city council is a microcosm of legislative bodies from the U.S. Congress on down, and how they tend to become ( alas ) exclusive clubs filled with willful and self-entitled individuals who also may be fools, criminals and over-the-hill ward-heelers. It's not surprising that Letts views them not merely as a club, but as tribal in the civic culture they have inherited—literally by oral tradition—the secrets they keep and their not-so-veiled threat of violence to enforce the collective will.

The Minutes—already slated for Broadway—is clever, frequently funny, quite wonderfully performed as a true ensemble piece under director Anna D. Shapiro and its messages are, perhaps, too true to be good ( to borrow Bernard Shaw's phrase ). Its messages also are apparent, even somewhat superficial, and we really don't learn much about the characters ( let alone the constituencies they represent ), so The Minutes is not Letts's most profound work by a good measure. It also ends with an action which not only is improbable but also, perhaps, too literal a playing-out of the play's ideas.

Still, the political gamesmanship and unravelling of secrets definitely hold one's interest and provide tension, amusement and an air of mystery. The key subplot allows Letts to channel some Native American lore ( fictional, but not improbable given the truths of American history ) close to his own Oklahoma upbringing, which clearly is important to him. The performances are spot-on, especially Petersen as the cagey, controlled and always-calculating mayor, clearly on top of all situations. Petersen's eyes alone—their focus and intensity—are a study in acting.

David Zinn's scenic design splendidly imagines an aging small-city council chamber trying to look grand: on one hand, Pantheon-like arching ceiling panels and a patriotic mural and, on the other hand, windows with old-fashioned Venetian blinds and a stained wall around the HVAC register.

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