Assistance: Office Dramedy as Tedious as the 9-to-5 Trudge

Take the 'Help Wanted' sign out of the window, this play is better off boarded up

 

assistance fb grab Assistance: Office Dramedy as Tedious as the 9 to 5 Trudge

Esper and Kull in Assistance, of which the play offers little.

Playwrights Horizons, the esteemed theater group now located in Theatre Row on West 42nd Street, has, through the years, presented some of New York’s most rewarding and celebrated plays. Assistance, a curiosity about office slaves who work for bosses they hate, written by a Los Angeles-based writer named Leslye Headland, is not one of them.

The best thing about Assistance, which would be better off in an experimental showcase than showcased in an experimental full-scale production, is that it is over in 90 minutes without an intermission. Oh, yes, there is also an impeccably designed set by David Korins that depicts the lowly staff office quarters of an organization called the Weisinger Company, located in a complex near Canal Street replete with glass doors and equipped with three desks loaded down with computers, multisystem phones, BlackBerries and clutter. It is never clear what the Weisinger Company does, but it becomes instantly obvious that the people who work there are all miserable, noisy, desperate and jockeying for position in jobs that are going nowhere.

Curtains no longer rise in the theater; you just sit there looking at the set until the lights lower and the play begins. When Assistance begins, a recently promoted flunky named Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, who will never get anywhere near a marquee with a name like that) is moving up the corporate ladder, taking over somebody else’s desk across the hall. Left behind is another assistant named Nick (Michael Esper), who is clearing space for a new assistant-assistant named Nora (Virginia Kull). There must be some metaphorical significance to the fact that they are called Nick and Nora, although I don’t know what it is. They don’t solve a mystery—or anything else bordering on significance. She used to be an intern, then a receptionist, and now she believes, for a brief time, she has actually advanced, getting closer to Daniel Weisinger, the CEO she worships. Nobody else does. The other assistants gossip about their boss, who never appears, but phones every 10 minutes from London to chew them all out. Another assistant named Heather (Sue Jean Kim) is fired, a fifth assistant named Jenny (Amy Rosoff) is hired, and everybody spasmodically emotes loudly—throwing themselves on the floor, affecting accents and exaggerated hysteria, craving crumbs of recognition for working overtime, beaming if they get one compliment, and generally providing a pecking order that is the equivalent of the Death March in Bataan. I guess it’s supposed to be a satirical look at the sadomasochistic tango between corporate lapdogs and their bosses who show blatant disregard and outright contempt for everything they do. Everyone is notched beneath them, especially their employees. Still, all six of the victims depicted here hang around to cash their paychecks, sucking up to the boss as willing but reluctant cogs in the corporate wheel. It’s all been done before, with more edge and wit, in movies like Horrible Bosses and TV shows like The Office. What these flunkies do is arrange tickets for charity dinners, fill the boss’s prescriptions, make plane reservations and overact. This is unnecessary, because the cast is fine—especially Bobby Steggert, the wonderful actor who turned Yank! A World War II Love Story, the off-Broadway musical about gays in the military, into a personal triumph. He arrives late, hopping around with one leg in a cast after the boss ordered his limo driver to run over his foot. It’s a stupid role, but Mr. Steggert makes every minute count, breathing some life into the final 20 minutes at last. 

The rest of the 90 minutes drags slowly, with only occasional interludes of joy to pick up the pace. Mostly the assistants just bicker. They dance. They drink. They smoke. They kiss. They devour the scenery. The director, Trip Cullman, shuffles them around like scrap paper shoved into a shredding machine. For dialogue, you get lines like “Did you actually check the Saturday Delivery box?” and “Confirmed—like a 12-year-old Catholic!” When the lights mercifully came on, my companion asked, “What was this play about?” To tell you the truth, it’s not about anything. Trivial, insignificant and pointless, Assistance is not even a play. It’s more like a boring commercial for FedEx.

In what seems like an awkward postscript, unrelated to anything else in the entire evening, one of the assistants breaks into a wild tap dance production number while the whole set collapses onto the stage before the audience’s eyes. The play surrounding it has collapsed much earlier.

rreed@observer.com

 

 

 

Playwrights Horizons, the esteemed theater group now located in Theatre Row on West 42nd Street, has, through the years, presented some of New York’s most rewarding and celebrated plays. Assistance, a curiosity about office slaves who work for bosses they hate, written by a Los Angeles-based writer named Leslye Headland, is not one of them.

The best thing about Assistance, which would be better off in an experimental showcase than showcased in an experimental full-scale production, is that it is over in 90 minutes without an intermission. Oh, yes, there is also an impeccably designed set by David Korins that depicts the lowly staff office quarters of an organization called the Weisinger Company, located in a complex near Canal Street replete with glass doors and equipped with three desks loaded down with computers, multisystem phones, BlackBerries and clutter. It is never clear what the Weisinger Company does, but it becomes instantly obvious that the people who work there are all miserable, noisy, desperate and jockeying for position in jobs that are going nowhere. 

Curtains no longer rise in the theater; you just sit there looking at the set until the lights lower and the play begins. When Assistance begins, a recently promoted flunky named Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, who will never get anywhere near a marquee with a name like that) is moving up the corporate ladder, taking over somebody else’s desk across the hall. Left behind is another assistant named Nick (Michael Esper), who is clearing space for a new assistant-assistant named Nora (Virginia Kull). There must be some metaphorical significance to the fact that they are called Nick and Nora, although I don’t know what it is. They don’t solve a mystery—or anything else bordering on significance. She used to be an intern, then a receptionist, and now she believes, for a brief time, she has actually advanced, getting closer to Daniel Weisinger, the CEO she worships. Nobody else does. The other assistants gossip about their boss, who never appears, but phones every 10 minutes from London to chew them all out. Another assistant named Heather (Sue Jean Kim) is fired, a fifth assistant named Jenny (Amy Rosoff) is hired, and everybody spasmodically emotes loudly—throwing themselves on the floor, affecting accents and exaggerated hysteria, craving crumbs of recognition for working overtime, beaming if they get one compliment, and generally providing a pecking order that is the equivalent of the Death March in Bataan. I guess it’s supposed to be a satirical look at the sadomasochistic tango between corporate lapdogs and their bosses who show blatant disregard and outright contempt for everything they do. Everyone is notched beneath them, especially their employees. Still, all six of the victims depicted here hang around to cash their paychecks, sucking up to the boss as willing but reluctant cogs in the corporate wheel. It’s all been done before, with more edge and wit, in movies like Horrible Bosses and TV shows like The Office. What these flunkies do is arrange tickets for charity dinners, fill the boss’s prescriptions, make plane reservations and overact. This is unnecessary, because the cast is fine—especially Bobby Steggert, the wonderful actor who turned Yank! A World War II Love Story, the off-Broadway musical about gays in the military, into a personal triumph. He arrives late, hopping around with one leg in a cast after the boss ordered his limo driver to run over his foot. It’s a stupid role, but Mr. Steggert makes every minute count, breathing some life into the final 20 minutes at last. 

The rest of the 90 minutes drags slowly, with only occasional interludes of joy to pick up the pace. Mostly the assistants just bicker. They dance. They drink. They smoke. They kiss. They devour the scenery. The director, Trip Cullman, shuffles them around like scrap paper shoved into a shredding machine. For dialogue, you get lines like “Did you actually check the Saturday Delivery box?” and “Confirmed—like a 12-year-old Catholic!” When the lights mercifully came on, my companion asked, “What was this play about?” To tell you the truth, it’s not about anything. Trivial, insignificant and pointless, Assistance
is not even a play. It’s more like a boring commercial for FedEx.

In what seems like an awkward postscript, unrelated to anything else in the entire evening, one of the assistants breaks into a wild tap dance production number while the whole set collapses onto the stage before the audience’s eyes. The play surrounding it has collapsed much earlier.

rreed@observer.com