review: assistance

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Assistance

by Leslye Headland
Directed by Trip Cullman
Featuring Michael Esper, Virginia Kull, Amy Rosoff
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
February 3, 2012 — March 11, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
February 19, 2012
[note: preview performance reviewed; production opens February 28, 2012] 

Mistakes Were Made (2010) gives us a producer making numerous calls, pushing a project, going more and mad in the process. Television and movie versions of Charlie’s Angels give us a boss’s voices from the telephone setting the characters in action. In Glengarry Glen Ross we live with office mates set against one another in a business that is never fully explained.  Miranda Priestly’s fashion industry minions in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) scheme, connive, aspire to keep their boss happy. What playwright Leslye Headland has crafted in Assistance draws from these precursors is the power of the office setting for theatre.  As in Charlie’s Angels, she focuses on the ones receiving the orders from the mystery person on the other end of the phone.  As Glengarry and Prada, she focuses on the maneuvering among underlings (whose machinations can only get them so much within the limitations of their underling power).  And other plot points and precursors inform variously. She grants this uniformly twenty-something on-stage cast pervasive ambition, charm, smarts, wit.  The experience is fast-paced, intermissionless, fun to watch, and gossamer.

Our story is set in a downtown office populated by assistants who aspire to be “director” or “manager” in the unnamed business enterprise. We never meet the boss, their reason for being, the source of all their aggravation, who sets their working lives in motion from meetings out of the office or travels out of the country. We never know what the widget is that their company produces or the service that they provide. What we are scripted to feel are a few arcs of pain and disappointment at a superficial wrong-in-the-work-place level. Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is leaving the main floor reception area for a “desk” as “director” at curtain up, and on his last day in the old position he and Nick (Michael Esper) field calls, manage their boss on the phone (never put him on hold, never surprise him with office-wide emails) and torture their colleague Justin (Bobby Steggert) on the phone until the final scenes of the play.  In eight scenes Nick fades out and the new girl Nora (Virginia Kull) fades in — Nick and Nora, cute.  Nora indicates that she has modeled her life on the head of the company, attending his college, admiring him from afar, aspiring to his success. She takes up where Vince left off, teaming with Nick to make colleague Justin’s life a little bit of hell while he is on the road with boss, and dreaming her own dreams of success.  Employee Heather (Sue Jean Kim) comes in to round out the low man role, is expendable, and replaced by another eager but rational and ambitious woman Jenny (Amy Rosoff).  Between the duo-trio scenes among the shifting cast of office characters are monologues with three of the company, providing more through line for Vince, a bit more opportunity to emote for Heather, and an outrageous and lead-footed (yet fun) chance to vent for Jenny.

Intraoffice romance and high adrenaline “manage the boss” adventures guard against the stakes of this dramedy becoming anything like the delicious and already referenced Mistakes Were Made in which we watch machinations to make a deal with a person actively promoting an agenda rather than continually reacting to commands received. We don’t grow to know or feel the worlds of any of the characters in any lasting depth, other than their immediate reactions to being fired, or hurt on the job, or being so disappointed by thwarted expectations coming into the job that they leave in a caffeine and adrenaline and sleep-deprived huff. There isn’t enough variation in the world views of these characters. We watch them realize that some bosses can be terrors and it pays to keep your expectations for the workplace in check.  All that said, this cast is great fun to watch in action.  It’s the play itself that loses its flavor quickly after chewing.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 20, 2012)

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