by Ron Fassler
Scott Organ’s new play 17 Minutes is the latest drama offered by the Barrow Group, one of New York City (if not the country’s) most exceptional producing entities. Located as they have been for a while at a theatre on the 3rd floor of a non-descript building on West 36th Street west of 8th Avenue, I can’t think of a better spot in all Manhattan I would rather go to discover new work. Co-Artistic Directors Seth Barrish and Lee Brock continually inspire, uplift and surprise their audiences and, as in the case with 17 Minutes, they bring their respective (and prodigious) directing and acting talents to bear.
In seven scenes that unfold with increasing power, Organ has skillfully crafted a play that makes its audience feel every second of the worst 17 minutes of a man’s life he will be forced to relive until the day he dies. When the lights come up in its first scene, Andy Rubens (Larry Mitchell), a cop in his mid-thirties, is being interrogated by a detective (Brian Rojas) about a school shooting that has just left eighteen students dead, killed by a fellow classmate. At first Rubens appears as if to have not fully awakened from this nightmare that has occurred on his watch. Called to the scene with his partner, it is she who faced down the killer while Rubens remained outside the school in stasis—for reasons unbeknownst to himself—unsure of where the shots were coming from. Even he is stunned to discover that the time he took vacillating on what to do amounted to a mind-numbing 17 minutes. How could it be possible? What happened? What caused him to freeze? How could it have been cowardice when he himself is an Iraq war veteran?
Over the next eighty-five minutes, we are immersed in the policeman’s forever-changed world. Relationships crumble. His wife Samantha (DeAnna Lenhart) is supportive, but also mystified. His partner Mary Stevens (Shannon Patterson) is empathetic, though trapped in her own replaying of the events and begs Rubens to get the therapy that is helping her cope with things. A chance meeting in a bar with Dan Watson (Michael Giese), the father of the shooter (and the only man in town more hated than Rubens), is a powerful conversation that lets neither off the hook. And in a remarkable showdown, in the play’s final confrontation, Cecilia, the mother of one of the victims (played in an achingly beautiful performance by Lee Brock), faces off with Rubens in a scene of remarkable mercy and forgiveness.
From the moment the play begins you can tell the care and painstaking detail that Seth Barrish and his actors organically discovered in rehearsal. Bits of behavior like how an individual makes their own particular cup of coffee, or the ritualistic cleaning of a gun, express character and make ordinary behavior in the light of tragedy feel weighted and profound. I was riveted by the way Brian Rojas as the detective in the opening scene questioned Larry Mitchell as the cop. Just the way Rojas would refer to his report, dutifully scribbling in what he was being told on fill-in-the blank forms, spoke volumes. Even though he was going through the motions, his detective appeared suffused with dread at the story he was hearing, and the interplay between the two men was methodical and striking at the same time. And so it went with every proceeding scene.
Staged with the audience seated on opposite sides of the house, forced to watch reactions as the story takes you deeper and deeper into the weeds, is an inspired touch. As good as the staging is, Barrish’s work with the entire company is superb, led by Larry Mitchell in a standout performance. Required to be in every scene of the play, the actor undergoes a transformation from shock and bewilderment, to grief, and near suicide, embodying the role with genuine pathos and grounded in reality at all times. No less impressive is Lee Brock in her one scene (the play’s apex). Called upon emotionally to use the entire arsenal in an actor’s handbag, she impressively delivers the goods.
Seth Organ is no stranger to the Barrow Group, as well as other theatre companies throughout the U.S. As this was my first encounter with him as a playwright, I am eager to see where his writing will take him next. 17 Minutes is a work of empathy and startling compassion and, as the great movie producer Sam Goldwyn once said about a film of his, “I don’t care if it makes a dime… so long as every man, woman and child in America sees it.”
That’s exactly how I feel about 17 Minutes.
Photos: Joey Moro
17 Minutes is scheduled to run at The Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre (312 West 36th St) through February 15th. https://www.barrowgroup.org/17-minutes-by-scott-organ