Leslye Headland scored a hit at Second Stage two years ago with her viciously funny comedy, “Bachelorette,” and now she is back at a different Manhattan venue — Playwrights Horizons — with another strong black comedy, “Assistance.”
The new show is about a group of young New Yorkers who work in the office of a businessman who is notorious for his mistreatment of underlings. All of the characters we meet work as assistants — or assistant to the first assistant — and they are all angling to “move across the hall” to an executive position.
Before she turned to playwriting, Headland did time as an assistant to the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, so the play has a bit of a “Devil Wears Prada” revenge fantasy aura around it.
The entertainment industry is so famous for screaming bosses, however, that what happens in “Assistance” would probably hold true for the workers in other downtown Manhattan offices (for a while, on theater chatboards, people who didn’t know about Headland’s connection with Weinstein assumed the boss in the play was meant to be another famously temperamental movie magnate, Scott Rudin).
The roman a clef aspect of Headland’s play has given it a higher media profile, but what she has to say about the workplace will probably resonate with anyone who has ever worked in an office for a domineering boss.
The characters in “Asisstance” are always one shrieking phone call from being fired — or finally working up the nerve to quit — but the promise of a promotion that will take them away from being at the top man’s beck and call keeps Nick (Michael Esper), Nora (Virginia Kull), Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), Heather (Sue Jean Kim), Jenny (Amy Rosoff) and Justin (Bobby Steggert) in place.
The characters in the comedy gain an extra edge of desperation from the current job market — quitting in a huff is no longer an option for most wage slaves no matter how terrible their jobs might get.
Headland keeps the boss offstage for the whole play, but we are on the other end of phone call after phone call so that we come to share the characters’ dread of the man’s next insane demand.
Michael Esper and Virginia Kull (above) get the most stage time because of a subplot about their sexual chemistry. Each of these actors works wonders with their phone scenes. Watching the changing expressions on the faces of Kull and Esper (especially the shock of being explosively told off) tells us everything we need to know about the man on the other end of the line.
Amy Rosoff (right) shows up fairly late in the play as the ambitious Brit Jenny. She thinks the other assistants are taking their abuse too personally, but the pressure builds up in her too, and she gets to explode in the final moments in an impromptu dance number that threatens to bring down the office (as it brings down the house).
“Assistance” delivers a fast (85 minutes) and furious jolt of smart contemporary comedy that should have a long life after Playwrights Horizons.