Assistance, Playwrights Horizons, New York

We usually think of personal assistants as people who organise their bosses’ schedules, keep track of their children, and perhaps fetch their dry cleaning. The real point of these underlings, however, as I was reminded by watching Leslye Headland’s highly amusing new comedy, Assistance, is to confirm the authority of their bosses.

Not that any credible resistance exists to the pre-eminence of Daniel Weisinger, the invisible higher power in this New York-based office fable. What was billed as a tale inspired by the playwright’s stint as aide-de-camp to movie mogul Harvey Weinstein turns out to be much less about the relationship between master and slave than about the pecking order within the put-upon class.

As the story’s wheels are set in motion, a senior assistant called Vince has been promoted, and Nick – given illusory seductiveness by Michael Esper – assumes the slot of top yes-man. If Nick fails to get an important man on the phone, Vince threatens: “I will personally rape your mother.” As infighting goes, such dialogue hardly qualifies as sparkling. Headland’s vision, though, demonstrates how brutal office life can erode wit – and kindness and consideration and every other sign of civilisation.

Apart from Nick’s affection for the initially hapless novice Nora – imbued with superb biding-her-time patience by Virginia Kull – Assistance is light on plot. We are left less with narrative than with mood: the excruciating boredom with which peons pass their days. How, the play seems to ask, did anyone who toils in an office ever survive workaday numbness before the internet and the minute-to-minute relief of checking Facebook updates and text messages?

Headland’s crucial storytelling decision is to make the big boss unseen. This deprives theatregoers of the chance to relish a monster mogul storming on and enacting the male equivalent of Meryl Streep plopping her pelts on the desk of the lowliest minion in The Devil Wears Prada. Instead, we are treated to an assortment of New York’s sprightliest young actors trying to assert their paltry status within the confines of a toiling tribe. Under the fast-paced direction of Trip Cullman, and against the backdrop of David Korins’s acutely observed downtown-Manhattan set, the performers try heroically to out-do each other. In this cohort, Bobby Steggert is first among equals.

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