In following up her hit play Bachelorette, well-reviewed in its 2010 production at Second Stage Uptown and soon to be released as a film starring Kirsten Dunst, playwright Leslye Headland has chosen a rather less abrasive approach with Assistance at Playwrights Horizons. If Bachelorette, about a handful of hellishly cruel bridesmaids, was packed with acid-tongued exchanges, Assistance is somewhat subtler and also somewhat less effective.
Set in the executive office of the Weisinger Company and revolving around the assistants to that company’s head, Daniel Weisinger, the overall conceit of the play is in its decision to follow a handful of assistants – and to revel in their undoings – without ever featuring the boss onstage.
Though we never meet Daniel, he’s a tangible presence throughout Assistance. Never put Daniel on hold, never apologize to him, never curse. These are some of the cardinal rules to assisting Daniel Weisinger, and, sure enough, our protagonists, Nick (Michael Esper) and Nora (Virginia Kull) flout them on a regular basis with terrifying results (at least as far as we can tell in observing the onstage sides of the conversations in question).
At first glance, Assistance comes across like a cross between Office Space and David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. Headland’s dialogue, as in Bachelorette, takes on a robust, spirited rhythm, and her decision to chronicle the work lives of assistants is fully within her grasp. Unfortunately, despite putting across several likable characters, the playwright hasn’t found a compelling central conflict strong enough to propel her protagonists into dangerous, uncharted territory. Instead, the general story arc with which we’re presented is all too familiar: guy likes girl, gets girl briefly, and loses her.
Michael Esper turns in a fine performance, as he usually does, as Nick. He’s got the speedy phone-fingers needed to be an assistant, without the sort of finesse that lands Vince, one of his colleagues, a spot “across the hall” in management. Virginia Kull is similarly winning as Nora, a charming do-gooder who’s had her eye on the Weisinger Company (somewhat implausibly) since she was a young lass.
A realistic office set by David Korins (which meets a hysterical end by the play’s conclusion) and spirited choreography (yes, choreography!) by Jeffry Deman add to the overall likability of Assistance, as do winning supporting performances from Sue Jean Kim as the eager intern and Amy Rosoff as the effortlessly successful new assistant. That the play is ultimately as funny and diversionary as it is is a testament to their talents. Unfortunately, a paint-by-numbers plotline and too-familiar setting prevent Assistance from finding its footing.