Saturday, February 11, 2012

'Assistance': What Won't We Do to Inch Up the Ladder of Success?

Virginia Kull and Michael Esper.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Imagine what it would be like if your boss were truly the megalomaniac you think he is.

That is Daniel, the never-seen but always-present world class monster who rules his universe with an iron fist in Assistance, Leslye Headland’s sharply sardonic and scarily funny take on life in the fast lane, being given a near-flawless production at Playwrights Horizons under the keen eye of director Trip Cullman.

Lord knows how Daniel—who has all of the charm of Violet Weston in August:  Osage County and the self-absorption of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada—became so successful at whatever it is he does (we’re never told, but a guess would be that he is a major player in the entertainment industry).  He apparently cannot tie his own shoelaces without the help of an endless parade of personal assistants whom he badgers, goads, humiliates, and tosses away like so many used tissues.

Assistance takes place in Daniel’s headquarters office, where a steady stream of ambitious wannabes play musical chairs among the three desks, tied to their computers and telephones like so many air traffic controllers at the world’s busiest airport.   

These bright, young, self-assured success seekers are like those knights lined up in the fairy tales, where the prize of the princess’s hand in marriage and half the kingdom is up for grabs to the one who can solve the riddle or slay the dragon.  Never mind that the road leading up to the castle is strewn with dead bodies; each is convinced he or she has what it takes to win it all.

It’s hard to know why they stay, what with the low wages, long hours, and constant abuse, but working for Daniel seems to be a great step up the career ladder for the young and ambitious—if conflictedstaffers.   As one of them puts it:  “I hate it here, and I don’t want to leave!”

The play opens with Nick (Michael Esper) and Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) taking phone calls and trading banter like computer wonk buddies at one of those Silicon Valley enclaves.  Vince is delighted to have won his exit pass, a move “across the hall” to some sort of managerial position away from the direct clutches of Daniel.  Nick’s goal, says Vince, should be the same as his was, to find someone who can do the first assistant’s job better than you, so that you will be transferred out.

So Vince moves out, Nick moves up, and in comes Nora (Virginia Kull), whose own personal goal is to be so successful that one day she can take Daniel’s place. 

Nick and Nora form a survival/romantic bond of sorts, and they are joined by three others as the play progresses: Heather (Sue Jean Kim), whose raison d'ĂȘtre is making her parents proud of her; Justin (Bobby Steggert), who lives to make excuses for Daniel’s heinous behavior and hopes he will someday actually please the boss; and Jenny (Amy Rosoff), a cool-as-a-cucumber multi-tasker whom nothing seems to faze. 

There is no through plot in a conventional sense, but there is an inevitable arc to the action, as each character either finds or is pushed through an exit.  And there are few qualms about shoving any of the others under the bus in order to hang on for one more day.   

The vibe is hyperkinetic as things are set spinning out of control.  We can imagine the characters living on triple-shot espressos, energy drinks, and alertness drugs as they work unceasingly to make sure the Great One’s needs are met, no matter the sacrifice.

The dialog throughout is sharp and clever, and presented with rapid-fire flair by a very talented cast indeed.  Mr. Esper, in particular, is magnetic as the always hopeful Nick, expecting at any moment to follow his buddy Vince to that wonderful land “across the hall.”  But all of the others have their moment in the spotlight, and Ms. Rosoff takes it on home at the end with a most magnificent breakdown, for which she and the director must share the credit with the set designer David Korins and choreographer (yes, I said choreographer) Jeffry Denman. 

I have long admired Playwright Horizon’s commitment to nurturing and providing a showcase for new or relatively new playwrights. Assistance joins the winner’s circle with such recent gems as Bathsheba Doran’s Kin, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, and Adam Bock’s A Small Fire.    

Playwright’s Horizons is offering discount tickets on orders placed by February 21:

Use the code HELPMEBLOG
$40 (reg. $70) for all performances through Feb. 19
$50 (reg. $70) for all other performances Feb 21-Mar 11

Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 Noon to 8PM daily
In Person: Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues

30&Under Party February 16 following the performance
All non-member tickets $25.  Use code PARTY.  Proof of age required at door.
Order at

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