nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 25, 2012
If you’ve ever been an assistant, or if you’ve ever had a high-pressure/low-paying job, or just a horribly obnoxious boss, you may quickly find yourself developing a severe case of apoplexy while watching Assistance, Leslye Headland’s fiercely funny new play, being given a smashing production at Playwrights Horizons directed by Trip Cullman.
Part screwball farce, part contemporary parable, Assistance is set in the office of Daniel Weisinger, the extremely high-powered boss of a worldwide corporation, unseen throughout but always on the other end of the ringing phone that his put-upon assistants answer for hours on end. The potential for upward mobility is the perpetual motion machine that keeps the assistants going, even if they have to wait years. As the play begins, the last primary assistant (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) has vacated his position for a new one, leaving Nick (Michael Esper) with the arduous task of becoming the lead, and, in turn, waiting for the person who can replace him.
Enter Nora (Virginia Kull), a lifelong devotee of Mr. Weisinger, who has steadily worked her way through the ranks of his organization to become second assistant. In Nora, Nick senses the potential for his move next door to progress much faster than expected. Of course, things are never that easy. As years progress and tertiary assistants (Sue Jean Kim, Amy Rosoff, and Bobby Steggart) arrive and depart, Nick and Nora are still there, stuck together, their temperaments and tolerance significantly changed.
Cullman ably guides his company through the farce-like proceedings (only instead of doors to slam on David Korins’s ornate and nicely colorless set, there are telephones to answer) with the right amount of vigor and pathos. Near-Verbrugghe, Rosoff and Kim range from funny to hilarious, while Steggart expertly captures the cold, unfeeling nature of a guy who won’t let anything stand in his way as he moves up the ranks from intern.
As Nick, Esper infuses the character with the right amount of slacker heart and pride. Whenever rebuked and insulted by Weisinger for a mistake, you can tell just by his facial expressions that it does a number on his self-esteem. Kull is downright sensational as Nora, the bright-eyed twentysomething who ends up tired, work-obsessed, and losing control of her sanity. In her hands, it’s nothing short of thrilling to watch Nora’s devolution. Together, they practically sizzle with chemistry, though, despite a hilariously staged moment of oral sex, Assistance is far from a romantic comedy.
Not everything lands, particularly the out-of-place yet brilliantly theatrical ending. But Headland, who wrote this work (representing greed) for her canon of plays about the Seven Deadly Sins, has expertly captured the fears and insecurities that exist when it comes to finding and keeping a job in 2012. Everyone on stage realizes, though they don’t want to admit it, that they’re one in a million and there’s always someone with a sly grin waiting right around the corner for them to slip up.