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Office as shark tank, in tense satire 'Assistance'

If you think your boss is unreasonable, wait until you hear the outrageous demands that must be handled at breakneck speed by various assistants to a wealthy tyrant named Daniel Weisinger.
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you think your boss is unreasonable, wait until you hear the outrageous demands that must be handled at breakneck speed by various assistants to a wealthy tyrant named Daniel Weisinger.

In Leslye Headland's new play, "Assistance," only the ambitious, harried, twenty-something assistants are seen and heard as they juggle simultaneous phone calls ("call rolling") and perform near-impossible tasks in frenzied attempts to please their often irate and always demanding boss.

Headland's fast and funny satire is having its New York premiere off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, smartly directed by Trip Cullman with a flair for the playwright's contemporary delivery and irony. The play is one of Headland's "Seven Deadly Sins" series, perhaps inspired by her four years as an assistant to movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Daniel's staff puts up with humiliating treatment because they enjoy working for somebody powerful and important, even when they inevitably come to despise their boss for berating them. They also hope the prestige of the job will lead them to much better-paying jobs in the future.

The assistants generally tease and support one another through Daniel's insults and tirades, though at times they act a lot like Daniel, backstabbing and even sacrificing an innocent colleague's job now and then, when the boss is really displeased. Such betrayals are part of normal life in this shark tank of an office, where jealousy and competition are rampant, and the greatest act of kindness could be to not help a colleague get their job back after they blow it.

The central characters are Nick and Nora (Michael Esper and Virginia Kull, who have great onstage chemistry and really shine.) Nick, whom Esper plays as a goofy, fun slacker, makes an art form out of sucking up to Daniel. Esper is very appealing as Nick, and it's painful to watch him cringing and making excuses while taking abuse from Daniel.

Senior assistant Vince, (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, slick and smart), gets promoted and leaves, becoming even more crazed as he gets power-mad with his new position. New intern Nora is initially dazzled by Daniel's business reputation and naively worried he might be "grumpy." Typical of Headland's snappy dialogue, Nick briskly explains the job to Nora by saying, "Working for Daniel is like living the last 30 minutes of 'Goodfellas' over and over again. Every day is the day you're coked out of your mind and you've got a million things to do and everything that could go wrong does go wrong."

Kull handles Nora's emotional unraveling with aplomb, as she sacrifices her personal life while coping with Daniel's negativity and the stressful pace over the next couple of years. Tony Award nominee Bobby Steggert is vulnerable and sensitive as Justin, an emotionally fragile assistant who "breaks up" with his therapist over the phone for daring to suggest he quit the abusive job after Daniel's car runs over his foot. Sue Jean Kim makes hapless intern Heather both funny and heartbreaking, when she gets skunked by her colleagues and fired for wanting to go to her uncle's funeral.

Amy Rosoff makes a late but memorable appearance as new British assistant Jenny, who coolly handles all Daniel's absurd requests while harboring an inner hellcat. In the play's wild epilogue, she drunkenly predicts "I'm gonna make so much money when I write my memoir about that wanker," then tap-dances madly around the office (a wonderfully detailed set designed by David Korins) until it is literally destroyed by her empowered anger.

"Assistance" is an intense, comically cautionary tale about not sacrificing your life and your soul for the addictive proximity to power and an ever-dangling carrot of a better salary.