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Assistance

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Assistance
Michael Esper and Virginia Kull.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

You think human workers can be dedicated? You don't know the meaning of the phrase "burning the candle at both ends" until you've observed the phones in Assistance. Ringing with such character — now provocatively, now accusatorily, later even forgivingly — that by the second scene you may find yourself wondering whether they're imbued with minds of their own, they typify the hot-footed pace and crackling tension at the core of Leslye Headland's play at Playwrights Horizons. So integral are these devices to the life of one of America's foremost movers and shakers, Daniel Weisinger, that for their boss the people answering them nonstop become not just interchangeable, but anonymous: minuscule parts of a world-sweeping machine of excess and success.

Of course, from our vantage point, the sextet of glorified secretaries tasked with wrangling them into submission — all while keeping their incredibly demanding employer happy (never put him on hold, never swear, never apologize, and so on) — seem far more responsible for keeping the business afloat than the unseen Daniel does. But is that true? And does it matter if they offer themselves to be stepped on for Daniel to achieve his ends only so they may someday reach their own? This is the tantalizing question Headland ponders over a heady 90 minutes of office action, drama, politics, and even romance (but just a little) that has been directed (by Trip Cullman) and acted to an often electric fare-thee-well despite containing precious little of what would traditionally be considered plot.

This might be a stumbling block for some playwrights, but not for Headland. She's as good at marshaling the feelings, spoken and unstated, through the invisible vagaries of a hectic existence here as she was with her first play to hit New York, Bachelorette (in summer of 2010). That play was the "gluttony" entry in her "Seven Deadly Plays" series, dramatizing those deliciously infamous sins; this one examines, as you may have guessed, greed, and concludes, as Gordon Gekko paraphrased in the movie Wall Street 25 years ago, that it is indeed good. Sometimes. Well, maybe. Under some circumstances. At the very least, it isn't always bad. Uh, for everyone.

Sorry for the percolating uncertainty there, but exposure to the όber-intense drones of Daniel's main Manhattan office (designed, part sumptuously, part shabbily, and wholly realistically, by David Korins) makes it tough to remain centered. These are emphatic people who captivate with strong personalities and probing drives that don't easily let you out of their grips. Nick (Michael Esper) is a lifer at this quick-turnaround place, having toiled there for nearly a year and a half when the play begins. He assumes the lead spot almost immediately from Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), who's moving to the near-mythical panacea "across the hall." Nick's replacement in the number two spot is Nora (Virginia Kull), who's transferred from the downtown office to pursue her since-childhood obsession with Daniel.

Alas, she's not entirely prepared for life on the front lines, and adjustment is rocky for her over the course of the subsequent two years the play covers. Relationships, with her boyfriend and (more illicitly) with Nick come and go, as do occupants of the third desk: first Heather (Sue Jean Kim), who's excitable but not tremendously efficient, then Jenny (Amy Rosoff), a British go-getter who's determined to give the man in charge a run for his money. The last is Justin (Bobby Steggert), who mostly drives for Daniel, but is capable of solving messes the others can't — even if doing so means perpetual psychotherapy and a broken limb or two.

The underlings' colliding dreams, goals, and obstacles thereto fuels a surprisingly high-octane evening that will be painfully familiar to anyone who's ever held down an office job, yet maintains an enjoyable lilt. Headland has captured with compelling verve the ebb and flow of competence, patience, and sanity inherent in any such work environment over a long period of time, and her dialogue sparkles with Seinfeldian quips and breezy interactions that, under Cullman's expert conducting, make the run-of-the-mill workplace chatter more musical than it ever is in reality.

Excellent casting plays a crucial role here, and the leads are superbly utilized. Esper brings an energized weariness to Nick that underscores both his pull and the too-trusting nature that keeps him rooted in place, waiting for Daniel to see through his easily forgotten whims; he balances Nick's canniness and carelessness in such a way that lets you see how this enterprising young man could be both the office's motivating force and its biggest screw-up. Kull is magnetic, and effects a dazzling transformation from fresh-faced hopeful to beaten-down eccentric that demonstrates, more than even the dialogue alone, what working here does to a person. Steggert makes the most of his minimal stage time by skillfully crafting a higher-flying and more-likely-to-succeed counter to the earthy realist of Esper's Nick, while maintaining his innate likeability. Near-Verbrugghe, Kim, and Rosoff, saddled with the least specific and dynamic characters, make less of an impression, but are nonetheless solid throughout.

Despite the performances and the overall strength of the writing, Headland has a little trouble sustaining the play's over-caffeinated mood until the very end, and the penultimate scene drags as it bunches closed the story. But she deserves plaudits for her daring theatrical coup of a finale, which highlights Rosoff in a powerful and shocking representation of how unbridled ambition and unimpeded follow-through can and frequently will change the world. The rest of Assistance makes this point sufficiently enough that such a scene isn't needed. But percussive reinforcement is never a bad thing, particularly when, as it does here, it literally and figuratively brings down the house in a way that reminds you that hyperactive phones and their even more sensitive operators are less important than the right person in the right position at the right moment.


Assistance
Through March 11
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.ticketcentral.com