The latest play by Stefano Massini to reach our shores is an entirely different project than his The Lehman Trilogy, three and a half hour epic, while at the same time continuing to explore problems of economics. 7 Minutes tells in real time the story of an urgent meeting of the union council of the fictional Penrose Mills, a rural Connecticut textile factory. Based on a true story that took place in France, it has been Americanized by translator Francesca Spedalieri and Lee Sunday Evans, Waterwell’s artistic director. The play has been seen in Italy, France, Germany and Iran. The cast is composed entirely of women and gender non-conforming BIPOC+ actors.
The audience sits on four sides of a breakroom and watches ten members of the Executive Council await nervously the return of Linda, their spokesperson. After about 15 minutes, Linda, the oldest member, arrives exhausted from her four hour meeting with the new owners and the new bosses, the factory having been purchased recently. Unlike what many of the women have been expecting, the owners are keeping the factory open, and will not touch their salaries or benefits or fire anyone. However, they have one condition: they want a concession of a seven minutes reduction of the break time between shifts from the current contractual 15.
While Linda is obviously not happy with the request, the others are elated until they figure out that it means an additional five hundred work hours a month, the equivalent of three new employees. Linda’s main opponent is Danielle who can’t risk losing her paycheck or her health insurance that pays for her husband’s dialysis. Linda attempts to get the others to view the issue from all sides as representative of all 200 workers. Eventually, she tells them explicitly her problem: it sets a bad precedent. And will the new owners stop there? Soon will they want another concession and yet another concession. And if they just bought the factory as a profitable ongoing viable concern is there any reason to believe that they would lay off employees or close the factory?
Given one hour to decide and vote, the union committee must come to a decision in real time. On one level the play is very much like Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men in which a group of disparate people must also make a life or death decision. However, unlike that play, the characters in 7 Minutes are not clearly delineated so that we do not know where many of them stand or who they are. While the production directed by Mei Ann Teo is absorbing for most of its running time placing us in the room where it happens, her staging having the actors move about a great deal makes it difficult to keep most of the 11 women separate from each other. Unlike 12 Angry Men, 7 Minutes does not offer a great many arguments for and against to warrant its running time, mainly getting into personalities.
Aside from the excellent Ebony Marshall-Oliver as the upright and thoughtful Linda, few of the actresses stand out from the pack so that we feel we can distinguish one from the other. There are the mother-daughter pair Denise and Nicole; Sophie, the youngest at 19; Turkish Leyla who wears a chader, Alex who is Asian, Inés who is from Mexico, an interesting cross section of workers, but difficult to keep straight as they mill around the breakroom.
Most forceful are Jojo Brown’s fiery Jordan and Simone Immanuel’s irate Rachel. As the worker formerly from Iran, Nicole Ansari gives a very moving speech about living under fear and a fight for survival. Sitting as the audience does on four sides of the playing area makes it difficult at times to see various performers. Teo moves them around interestingly so that our focus continually changes, but, on the other hand, makes it more difficult to identify all of the committee members.
The production has used the utmost realism: You-Shin Chen’s set, Asa Benally’s costume design, Hao Bai’s lighting and sound designs, Patricia Marjorie’s props. While the translation by Spedalieri is clear, at some times the language in English is a bit awkward as going for an effect that it does not achieve, particularly Linda’s balanced, controlled statements. Stefano Massini’s 7 Minutes is a fascinating experiment including its unexpected ending, but it is not entirely successful in its goals, while at the same time depicting a very real and timely problem of labor versus management. The cast is fine but somewhat undermined by both the staging and the writing.
7 Minutes (March 17 – April 10, 2022)
Waterwell in association with Working Theater
HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue at Dominick Street, one block south of Spring Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.waterwell.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission