Being an assistant to a demanding egomaniac is something of a rite of passage for young New Yorkers, as playwright Leslye Headland knows all too well from her stint as assistant to Harvey Weinstein. The demands, the screams, the ringing phone that elicit a Pavlovian response—it’s all there in Headland’s trippy, raucous new comedy Assistance at Playwrights Horizons.
A years-spanning work punctuated by monologues from the beleaguered assistants of Daniel Weisenberg (his profession is deliberately left vague), Assistance mostly focuses on Nick (Michael Esper) and Nora (Virginia Kull), mutual addicts of the high levels of stress their outrageous boss inspires. Phones ring, the list of dos and don’ts is high and Nick and Nora thrive on delivering the goods under unbearable pressure. Until, of course, one of them cracks.
Along the way, other assistants come and go: ambitious Vince (Lucas Near-Verburgghe) who has been promoted before the play’s opening scene; clumsy, scattered Heather (Sue Jean Kim), cool-as-a-watercress-sandwich Brit Jenny (a fabulous Amy Rosoff, turning her Off-Broadway debut into a moment of discovery); and the exasperated Justin (Bobby Steggert), who is gleefully tormented by his office-bound co-workers while he travels the world with Daniel. And through it all, the second hand of the giant wall clock that hangs over David Korins’ pitch-perfect SoHo loft office ticks away, while the minute hand stymies clockwatchers by never moving.
Headland is less interested in why Daniel treats his employees the way he does and more in the ways they revel in the attention. Like naughty children, every time Daniel screams at them they physically wilt but emotionally blossom in the glare of the acknowledgement that they do, in fact, work for a powerful man. In her way, Nora is the most masochistic of all, taking on as much work as possible in a vain attempt to earn the most notice, but Nick—promised a promotion for years and still playing the waiting game with a good-natured grin—runs a near second.
Kull, whose untrained voice has been problematic in her previous performances, here delivers on the glimmers of real talent she has always displayed. Her Nora is a haggard mess, a walking bundle of jangled nerves who doesn’t want to leave the office because at least in Daniel’s peripheral limelight she feels something. And Esper’s Nick is a decent guy hiding behind the mask of shared office jokes and endless gags to lighten the mood; Headland nails the inner office hazing that occurs when over-educated employees find themselves over-worked, underpaid and wasting their degrees while walking dogs.
Headland and director Trip Cullman’s biggest gamble turns out to be the secret weapon of Assistance, a final, climactic moment that edges into the surreal. Set to LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yourself Clean,” Headland delivers the final, cleansing moment of catharsis for the audience, forced to watch these men and women eagerly take on gut-clenching stress, that she had denied her characters. As the song builds to an explosive finish, what seemed like a de rigeur offbeat finale for a young playwright earns its prickly weirdness, and elevates Assistance to the level of must-see theater.