Assistance: Theater Review

Assistance Virginia Kull Michael Esper - H 2012
Joan Marcus

Assistance Virginia Kull Michael Esper - H 2012

Anyone who has ever shuddered beneath the demands and degradation of a high-maintenance boss will relate, but this slender satire will have the most bite for film-industry insiders.

"Bachelorette" writer-director Leslye Headland says her play about long-suffering executive assistants is not a tell-all, but the notoriously irascible personality of her former boss, Harvey Weinstein, is stamped all over it.

NEW YORK – Leslye Headland has made no secret of her time in the trenches working as an assistant to Harvey Weinstein. So despite the standard work-of-fiction disclaimer from the publicist on her dark comedy Assistance, the inspiration is clear. And despite snappy work from director Trip Cullman and a fine cast, it’s also the most interesting aspect of this reluctant roman à clef.

While Headland deliberately withholds details, the clues are not exactly subtle. There’s that giant W logo on the exposed brick wall of designer David Korins' very downtown New York office set for starters. Then there’s the name of the firm – The Weisinger Company – where four stressed-out assistants to a monstrously demanding, belligerent boss jockey for advancement, or at least, self-preservation.

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Company president Daniel Weisinger is never seen in the play, nor is the exact nature of his business ever revealed, which makes this The Devil Wears Prada with Satan offstage. But to anyone even distantly familiar with operations in the kingdom of Weinstein, Headland’s observations are as specific as you can get without naming names.

Despite the authenticity of its workplace milieu, however, Assistance is more a situation than a fully realized play, stringing together office-life episodes to depict a particular pathology of the contemporary professional world.

There’s not much of a dramatic arc beyond a romantic flirtation that never quite develops, and in place of genuine catharsis there’s a fantasy destruction finale. The playwright instead offers a high-anxiety anthropological study of the desperate survival instincts of the masochistic young and the hungry. The cannibalistic fury of their dark overlord becomes a side note. As a consideration of the price of ambition and its uncertain rewards, it’s fast-paced and diverting enough. But it doesn’t really go anywhere.

“Working for Daniel is like living the last 30 minutes of Goodfellas over and over again,” warns Nick (Michael Esper), the first assistant whose promised promotion is dangled like a carrot throughout the play. “Insults build character,” counters office newbie Nora (Virginia Kull), the idealist – and presumably, the stand-in for Headland – whose hero-worship of Daniel and his trailblazing career cause her to sign up for guaranteed pain.

Daniel may not be physically present onstage, but he’s a vivid character in the unheard side of the rolling phone calls that make up much of the action. Without a word of dialogue from him, we get a picture of Daniel in the hectoring manner; the intolerance for grammatical error or cussing from his flunkies; the tendency to cut them off mid-sentence and call them out on lies; the disdain for excuses; and the rage triggered by being put on hold.

Weinstein employees past and present have been checking out the play in previews and say the M.O. is vintage Harvey. Insiders say the assistants are also modeled on real-life TWC staffers, at least one of whom is still with the company.

“I don’t waste my time helping people,” yells Nick, when his place in the pecking order is threatened. “I’m too busy getting thrown in front of a freight train by every single person in this company. I’m too busy being the cum-shot girl in the gang-bang. I’m the fucking violinist on the Titanic.”

In addition to frazzled quasi-lovers Nick and Nora, there’s aggressive Vince (Lucas Near Verbrugghe), who graduates to a director’s office across the hall and instantly ratchets up his banter into Ari Gold alpha-speak. There’s Heather (Sue Jean Kim), part of a seemingly constant stream of quick roadkill; and Justin (Bobby Steggert), in the firing line as Daniel’s traveling assistant but undeterred even by injury. And there’s Jenny (Amy Rosoff), the ice-cool Brit who digs her claws into the corporate ladder from day one.

Assistance ultimately is about the extent to which their ambition will permit career-minded twentysomethings to endure the toxicity and humiliation of an abusive environment. It’s entry-level corporate torture porn. Often appropriating the behavior of the boss, the characters swap dignity, self-worth and even sanity for proximity to entrepreneurial brilliance.

Whether Weinstein is tickled or ticked off by the oblique portrait is unknown. But since the play premiered in an earlier version in West Hollywood in 2008, he’s no doubt aware of it. Either way, it didn’t stop TWC from picking up Headland’s debut feature as writer-director, Bachelorette (adapted from another one of her plays), out of Sundance for release through its new Radius label.

Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York (runs through March 11)

Cast: Michael Esper, Sue Jean Kim, Virginia Kull, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Amy Rosoff, Bobby Steggert

Director: Trip Cullman

Playwright: Leslye Headland

Set designer: David Korins

Costume designer: Jessica Pabst

Lighting designer: Ben Stanton

Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff

Choreographer: Jeffry Denman

Presented by Playwrights Horizons