Subtlety Is Golden; Enter "Assistance"

I can tell the mark of a great production when about halfway through, I realize I am engaged with the story unfolding, even though I can not put an exact finger as to why. That is what Leslye Headland’s Assistance, a Playwright Horizon’s production, did for me when I was in the audience of its first preview this past Friday. The show’s lack of ambition and simple storyline was, to my utter astonishment, how it was pushing boundaries. As far as a show hitting you over the head with subtlety (in a good way), Assistance is unparalled.

The plot seems familiar in the sense that anyone can identify with it. Spanning over three years, give or take, at a New York business, a group of assistants, run ragged by a demanding, unreasonable and insufferable boss, try to get through their days as amicably as possible. At the center of it all is Nick (Michael Esper), the long-standing, slackerish assistant who looks for the humor of his workplace to offset the insanity. As other new hires come and go, including the poised-turned-panicked Nora (Virginia Kull), Heather (Sue Jean Kim), Jenny (Amy Rosoff) and Justin (Bobby Steggert), the entire environment shifts to reflect the melting pot of personalities and their endurances of working under the stresses of a tyrant.

Akin to one of your friends sharing stories over dinner or a cocktail on a Friday evening, what the characters endure and how they cope with the work environment resonates well. The entire production is pitched to those whom have worked in an assistant position, but I feel that anyone, especially 20-somethings in a subservient position, can connect with material instantly. No over-the-top scenarios and no ciphers in place of actual characters…the show impresses with how understated and authentic it was.

You would think that something so realistic and minimal would be boring as a stage piece, but Assistance avoids that fate with some sharp dialogue and the perfect ratio of drama to comedy. Everytime the phone rang, with a strong assumption it was the boss calling, or one of the assistants was on the phone, I lived and died by every word spoken and every transferred call. The new hires, each pending termination, the promotions, the demotions…it all plays out with enough narrative tension that kept me entranced until the final second, with enough laughter along the way to offset the somewhat depressing setup the show could have been

"Ugh guys...what are we doing?"
Even better, because a piece that reveals an unforeseen depth is a welcome sight, the commentary on the state of employment is on-point. All of the assistants, Nora especially, embody this idea of masochism as a means of justifying the ends, the hopeful result being a brighter future. This takes the form of the long work hours and ridiculous demands they go through and evidently, it is not for a simple paycheck. Climbing the company ranks, making the bigger bucks and earning the approval of the boss…that means something to them, some more then others. As the personal lives dwindle to the point of non-existence, an example being Nora losing her boyfriend as she becomes a frenetic, work-obsessed mess, there is this lingering wonder if the sacrifices would be worth it, would the work environment improve in the face of such pessimism or when it would all end.

The show examines each side and potential outcome of the aforementioned questions and while a straight-forward response was not needed (or expected), my takeaway was something of a Social Darwinism integration. When the assistants are pitted against each other for the next promotion, a relatively ongoing plot point, them trying to outshine the others reinforce this idea that work standing and control is practically a primal motivation at all costs. In the face of their self-loathing and manic lifestyles, each characters path’ reaches some moment of catharsis, nearly all of which surprised me…

But no spoilers here; you will have to just see the show for yourself. And recommend it I do, on the grounds of how funny it is amidst the controlled drama, the set of pitied, but likeable characters and the performers who play them. Nary a criticism will come from my mouth regarding Michael Esper considering how well liked he is to the readers and myself alike. It is such a relief that he continues to deliver on the acting front so my take on his character can be unbiased. Bottom line: he plays Nick to perfection mining each situation for laughs or believable drama respectively. From talking about videos on the Internet, playing music as a tension breaker and even mimicking a faux hanging (he had me rolling with that one), his flair for comedy was so natural and well-suited to him.

The show featured Nick and Nora most prominently and to her credit, Virginia Kull was a great counterpart to Esper. The two shared a great chemistry as friendly co-workers with a potential romantic pairing and Kull made Nora’s transition from ambitious new hire to jaded, fatigued employee completely believable. One of the highlights of the show for me was their final exchange before the lights went down; it was theater brilliance unfolding…

A shout out is in order to Amy Rosoff, who shows up about an hour in, and begins chewing the scenery as Jenny, a determined, hilariously outspoken, take-no-bullshit assistant. I thought I loved her upon arrival, but I had no idea until the last five minutes. She has a moment so unexpected, laugh-out-loud funny and just plain awesome that it will send the audiences away smiling. Seriously; the bitch SHUT. IT. DOWN and all I could do was send up air-snaps to her as we shuffled out of our seats.

Opening on February 28 and closing on March 11 (the timeline is a little off, no?), Assistance is a worthwhile night out at the theater. I’ll leave it at that as I go surf the web in an attempt to secure more tickets for my friends and I…oh yes, I feel the show is worth seeing again and I don’t get that inclination often, especially for an off-Broadway show. For such a discreet, little production, it boasts some good comedy, drama and acting and it stuck with me after its viewing. Need I say more?

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