Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Assistance

Much like anyone who’s worked in an office can simultaneously cringe at and appreciate Office Space, anyone who’s been an assistant can commiserate with the poor office hacks in Leslye Headland’s acerbic new play, Assistance.

Headland’s sharp, efficient writing is in full effect in her keenly observed play, one in a series exploring the seven deadly sins. (This one is about greed. Bachelorette—so good at Second Stage Uptown a couple of summers ago—focused on gluttony, and has been adapted for the screen.)

It’s seven o’clock on a Friday night and Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Nick (Michael Esper) are still at work. Nick is staying to cover the late shift and train the new girl, Nora (Virginia Kull), who has been waiting in reception for four hours. They all work for Daniel Weisinger, a VIP (whom we never meet) with the worst and most oversized egotistical demands and expectations. (Meaning: he’s the most important person – ever, and he wants exactly what he wants—nothing more, nothing less—yesterday. It’s people like him that drove me away from DC and politics. Interestingly, Playwrights Horizons' artistic director, Tim Sanford, hypothesizes that The Weisinger Company is an entertainment company of some sort. I can't help but think it's some political or lobbying firm, though the play is set in New York City.)

Throughout the play, we watch the rotating roster of assistants, which also includes the eager Heather (Sue Jean Kim), the snotty but seductive Jenny (Amy Rosoff) and a shrewd and exacting Justin (the terrific Bobby Steggert). Like in Shame, it’s easy to see what motivates all the assistants: greed. Their greed for power and stature drives them to rationalize thoroughly irrational behavior as they slavishly chain themselves to their desks and phones. Greed is a deadly sin and, indeed, their greed is killing them. (Not quite literally, although one character does break his foot. Metaphorically, of course, the greed that keeps them in the hellish office definitely breaks their spirit.)

What is interesting about the office dynamics is the way they interact with each other. There’s certainly a pecking order. The first and second assistants (first Vince and Nick, then Nick and Nora) try to look out for one another. And while they don’t lie to lay blame on someone beneath them, they won’t hesitate to honestly rat out someone who’s third or fourth in line. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, their greed for the top prize takes over and each person is looking out for number one.

Most telling about the sycophantic assistants’ behavior and motivating forces are the incisive and insightful interludes sprinkled throughout Headland’s play. (The final one, courtesy of Jenny, is fantastic—it comes from nowhere but yet makes perfect sense and is fully satisfying.) Vince, Heather, Justin and Jenny are in the spotlight, and each makes excuses for allowing themselves to be exploited by Daniel. (We see Nick and Nora only in the office.) During Heather’s confessional, for example, she tells her mother, “This job made me important.” How sad it is that being someone’s lackey makes one important. What’s even sadder, I think, is that those of us who’ve worked for a Daniel know just how easy it is to fall into any of the assistants’ frame of mind and concur with Heather.

Directed by Trip Cullman (A Small Fire, Bachelorette), this cast is pitch perfect. Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) is funny and spot-on as the arrogant prick who gets ahead. Amy Rosoff impresses as Jenny, particularly in her manic final moments on stage. Bobby Steggart—in just one and a half scenes—draws a full character, and is so powerful during his interlude. His Justin is clearly drunk on the Kool-Aid, and even though he’s literally broken, he makes excuses to his therapist about why working for Daniel is so amazing. Steggart seems possessed and focused, and the production is richer thanks to his performance.

Handling the heaviest load are Michael Esper (American Idiot, iHo) and Virginia Kull (Sex Lives of Our Parents). Both display great range, showing off Nick’s and Nora’s layers with deceptive ease. They also have great chemistry, which makes their interpretation of Headland’s witty repartee thrilling. Esper is especially impressive as he subtly transitions from office goof to officious assistant to flirt and much more in between. He’s not an aggressive actor, but he commands attention with his raw and honest performance.

I’ve had such satisfying experiences with both plays in Leslye Headland’s cycle, and I’m looking forward to catching her meditations on the five other deadly sins.

Assistance runs at Playwrights Horizons through March 11. Visit playwrightshorizons.org for more information and to purchase tickets.

Bonus: Illustrator Ken Fallin's rendering of Assistance, as seen on Playbill.com:

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