Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Assistance: Rolling Calls Like a Pro

Leslye Headland's new play Assistance at Playwrights Horizons is set in the office of a powerful, abusive (unseen) boss who churns through assistants like clean shirts and asks the question what are these young, smart people doing here.  As a former Hollywood assistant myself, the material should be right up my alley.  Though Headland captures the setting and extremes of the job accurately, for me, it did not go far enough into the "why" which is the real meaty question. 

Lucas Near-Verbrugghe plays Vince the "first" assistant who has finally brought up a second to replace him so he can move across the hall and become a junior executive.  Full of bravado, snark and using an uninteresting office vernacular I struggled to get into the rhythm of the play with these opening scenes.  But as time goes on, the play focuses on Michael Esper as Nick, who is the newly crowned first assistant and Nora (Virginia Kull)  who is his new second.  Inevitably in close quarters, with the barrage of abuse by their boss Daniel Weisinger, Nick and Nora become a secret couple.

Filling out the cast of assistants are: Bobby Steggert, as Justin, the traveling assistant (a real thing) who hilariously tries to break-up with his shrink over this job, Sue Jean Kim, as Heather, the perfect kid trying to impress her mother but who was never gonna make it here to begin with, and Amy Rosoff, as Jenny, the British, above-it-all assistant who might just have the right attitude for this job infuriating though it is. 

Though some might think the extremes of this setting are fictional or overstated, I can tell you they are not at all.  When one of the assistants begs to go to her uncle's funeral I could relate.  Was I questioned once about how well I knew the person whose funeral I wanted to attend?  Yes. I was.  Did I have to go into detail about this friend's suicide?  Yes. I did.  I at least got to go to the funeral.

None of this is funny at all.  What is funny is the incremental slide into accepting this as your new "normal."  It is funny to the outside observer because it seems extreme and the stakes seem abnormally high.  But I found that quite accurate and true.  I also liked the development of a co-dependence between people with a frisson of competition, but there wasn't nearly enough swearing.

Two major issues plague this work.  First, the play fails to respect or invest in the characters  and second, it skirts substance for sub-par humor.

The play tip-toes around who this boss is.  Some people have alleged it is based on Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin.  In either case, it would have been stronger if we knew what business they were talking about, and, moreover, why these assistants wanted to be there in the first place. The writer says this choice was intentional.  But when Nora gives a speech about how it has been her dream to become Daniel Weisinger, without any specificity, it rang false to me.  Conceptually it doesn't matter what industry because it is all totally insane but I think by dodging the question it leaves an awkward absence where none need be.  Often it is hard for outsiders to understand why assistants take on these types of jobs--but I would think that would be the playwright's job here, to give us a window into that and help outsiders understand.

Being able to share in one of these assistant's dreams for a moment would have gone a long way to explore the motivations and arcs of the characters.  Their suffering would have been put in context and their sacrifices would have meant something--at least to them.  As written, it underplays all that potential substance and feels a bit flip and condescending.   It is as if Headland has no respect for her characters or their life choices which begs the question why write about them if you don't care about them.  Their jobs are humiliating enough without your disdain.

The real focus of the play is Nick and Nora (gag me with a Thin Man reference) and why they are driven together or apart by this workspace.  Although there are a few nice moments between them, I think the play sacrificed character development by going for laughs and displaying the extreme situations these assistants are put in.  The laughs were not nearly as funny as I was expecting and the more they tried for the "funny" the more I longed to know who these characters were.  Although there are changes in their attitudes about the job over time, the emotional arc is obscured and that was what I wanted to see.  If you are not going to care about your characters or bother with emotional development, it better be god damn funny on the surface and here it was mildly amusing at best.

The cast assembled is great and I just wish they were given more to do.  Michael Esper is the king of holding his emotions so close to the surface that they seem to just pour from his eyes.  He's better at crushed soul than bravado.  He gets some opportunity to put that skill on display.  Virginia Kull gets the big emotional outbursts but I felt we knew so little about her that I was not invested in her at any point.  Bobby Steggert has precious little on-stage time and what he does with it is delightful.  The oscillation between the obedient child and the defender of the abusive parent is a great way to shed light on the personality type attracted to this job.  Amy Rosoff gets a showy role and fully embraces it.  Sue Jean Kim does a fine job of being a bad assistant.  Lucas Near-Verbrugghe was a believable vile-some dick so that was nice.  But all these great performers were just left to skate on a thin ice.

1 comment:

  1. I had similar issues with the play, especially about not specifying the industry, but it was such a great production that I almost want to see it again.

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