Leslye Headland’s new social comedy, “Assistance,” lacks the savage bite of her 2011 hit “Bachelorette” (which the scribe also adapted and directed as a film for this year’s Sundance Festival), and if there’s an actual plot buried somewhere in the circular storyline, it’s well hidden. There’s still beaucoup satiric wit in this manic look at ambitious young Gotham professionals having spectacular meltdowns as they claw their way up the ladder of success. Bright cast assembled by helmer Trip Cullman (who also directed “Bachelorette”) makes this workplace madness look like fun.
“Daniel Weisinger” is the (unseen) boss of the (unidentified) company where all the smart kids want to work, a man hated, feared, and worshipped by the 20-something assistants who arrive with high ambitions and flame out trying to please him. The (unheard) sound of Daniel’s voice on the phone, barking out contradictory orders and hurling insults from far-flung regions of the globe, is enough to send the whole office into spasms.
The physical absence of this powerful boss, the vagueness of his business and the meaningless labor of his interchangeable assistants are all part of scribe’s snide joke about the essential worthlessness of what passes for honest work in a post-industrial service economy. That point is brought home by David Korins’ tongue-in-cheek set of a trendy office in Soho — all white and utterly without character, but clinging proudly to its historic features as a cast-iron manufacturing building.
You’d think that anyone who works at a useless job in a useless economy might themselves feel useless. Au contraire. By convincing themselves that they’re doing Very Important Work for a Very Important Person, the drones employed by this mysterious firm continually rationalize their own self-importance.
In lieu of an actual plot, Headland’s edgy little comedy lays out a neat trajectory for the super-smart and hyperactive junior execs who come and go and crash and burn at Daniel’s whim. Following the rotation, the boss’s first assistant is either fired or promoted to a managerial position, the second assistant moves up the ladder, and someone new is hired to be the assistant to the assistant to the assistant.
To put names to these pawns: Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is followed by Nick (Michael Esper) who is followed by Nora (Virginia Kull) who is followed by Heather (Sue Jean Kim) who is followed by Jenny (Amy Rosoff). The shelf life of an assistant is around 17 months, time enough for the transformation from eager intern to strung-out drudge to candidate for institutionalization. Esper’s feverishly wise-cracking Nick (who compares working for Daniel with “living the last 30 minutes of ‘Goodfellas’ over and over”) is a funny, carefully observed case of arrested male development. And Kull makes nice work of Nora’s transition from insecure new girl (looking a perfect fright in Jessica Pabst’s godawful first-day-of-work outfit) to foaming-at-the-mouth office manager. There’s real poignancy in Nora’s lament: “I hate it here and I don’t want to leave.”
Their fellow thesps are no less adept at picking up on Headland’s snarky tone and Cullman’s lock-and-load pace. It isn’t due to some failure of company nerve that the play, which preemed at L.A.’s IAMA Theater Company, eventually goes limp. Just as the schematic structure keeps the repetitive events from turning into dramatic action, the incessant verbalizing doesn’t allow characters to develop or themes to be explored. From the neck up, this seems like one good-looking specimen of contempo wit. But look closer, and it’s all surface and no core.