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Theatre in Review: 7 Minutes (Waterwell/Working Theatre/HERE)

Danielle Davenport, Mahira Kakkar, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Nicole Ansari, and Aigner Mizzelle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Stefano Massini's 2014 drama finds considerable suspense in the workings of democracy, in this case a single, crucial vote among the members of a union executive committee. All are employed at an American textile factory that has been sold to a new management beholden to foreign investors. (Massini's original script sets the action in France, as does Michele Placido's 2016 film. Translator Francesca Spedalieri, working with Lee Sunday Evans, has adapted the text to Connecticut.) The action begins on a note of high tension as everyone waits for Linda, their representative, to return from a meeting with the new bosses. The worst is expected: Surely, the owners will want to downsize, streamline, automate, and generally reduce the work force. Isn't that the way of the world?

But when Linda returns, after a nerve-wrackingly long three hours, she brings surprising news. No changes are contemplated, and everybody can rest assured that their jobs, benefits, and insurance are intact. There's only one little proviso: Management wants the committee's assent to surrendering seven minutes of a paid fifteen-minute break already built into the schedule. Oh, and the offer comes with a deadline that expires in the next eighty-or-so minutes.

What could be more reasonable? Indeed, everyone in the room is ready, even eager, to ink the deal, except for Linda, who announces her opposition. In response, consternation reigns; having just escaped (they think) the worst, the others are ready to move on. But as Linda begins to sow seeds of doubt, questions come to the fore: What's behind that request for seven minutes? What does it signify? Is this give-back as minor as it looks?

Spedalieri's English version has an easy conversational quality, but the script has a certain built-in artificiality that, at least initially, distracts. Exactly why does Linda's meeting with the new owners take so long if there is only one small issue on the table? When Linda enters, instead of instantly providing the details, she prevaricates, offering only brief, clipped answers to the others' many questions; it's an example of a playwright blatantly using delaying tactics to raise anticipation. Furthermore, there's something faintly derivative about the entire enterprise. Once the action gets down to brass tacks, 7 Minutes carries a whiff of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, in which a lone juror takes a contrarian stand, slowly winning the others over to his point of view.

But even if you think you know where 7 Minutes is headed -- and you don't, thanks to a nifty last-minute twist -- the line of Linda's argument easily reels one in. The group's senior member, Linda is a hard-bitten survivor, having lost the feeling in two of her fingers while working the looms. She also has a probing mind that can't stop looking for the real motivation behind the deal; coming up with a plausible theory, she convincingly sketches out its probable meaning and future implications. Ebony Marshall-Oliver, unrecognizable from the flashily dressed trouble magnet she played in Chicken and Biscuits earlier this season, dominates the action, endowing Linda with plenty of intelligence and compassion. She also has a fine way with a lengthy speech, turning each twist of her logic into a cliffhanger; it's easy to believe that a roomful of antagonists would feel compelled to hear her out.

Indeed, you'll feel the crackle as Linda gradually forces the others to consider the unthinkable, that in agreeing to this small concession they may be unwittingly collaborating in their long-term ruination. Under Mei Ann Teo's taut, perfectly timed production, the others push back eloquently. Among them are Mahira Kakkar as a veteran worker troubled by the nuances of Linda's argument and Layla Khoshnoudi as another long-timer who eloquently notes that they have everything to lose by voting no. There are also striking contributions by Nicole Ansari as an Iranian immigrant who suspects Linda of cutting a side deal for herself; Jojo Brown, whose character's indecision makes her the biggest wild card in the crowd; and Aigner Mizzelle as the very young office worker who will cast the deciding vote. But the entire cast, consisting of women and gender-nonconforming performers, keeps things simmering until the final vote.

The production adds a gritty note of reality to the proceedings, beginning with You-Shin Chen's breakroom set, with its utilitarian furniture and dropped panel ceiling. Hao Bai's lighting casts a bright institutional glare over the action -- another felicitous touch is the many incandescent cage lights scattered around the audience -- and her sound design includes a low industrial bum and the creaking of machinery. Asa Benally's costumes give each character a strong individual profile; note, for example, the difference in looks between the secretarial staffers and those working on the floor.

Coming at a time when the union movement is possibly experiencing a renewed burst of energy in the US, 7 Minutes is very much of this moment, posing some provocative questions: In trying to keep the status quo, are these characters mortgaging their future? Is their employment a privilege or a right? And what should they give up -- if anything -- to hold onto it? --David Barbour

(28 March 2022)

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