BWW Reviews: Strong Performances Buoy Script in Epic's ASSISTANCE
"Assistance" at Epic Theatre Company, which closed this weekend, had its shortfalls; however, it was still an engaging and energetic night at the theatre.
The play, by Leslye Headland, was a Rhode Island premiere (the third of Epic's season) but it didn't come with the kind of advanced buzz out of New York that "Tribes" or "The Other Place" did. That is perhaps due to the play's mundane, if exaggerated, subject matter. The play concerns the assistants to an omniscient, if strangely absent mogul named Daniel, likely based on Harvey Weinstein, for whom Headland worked. The protagonists are Nick, a struggling assistant petrified of getting stuck in the office, and Nora, a young go-getter focused on surpassing Daniel himself. Other assistants come and go, but these two characters take us through the bulk of the story.
As Nick, Jonathan Fisher consistently kept the audience on its toes, equally adept at hurling Rob Schneider-like nicknames as he was at being shockingly vulgar. The script often went into that place of vulgarity, often to the detriment of the plot. The actors, to their credit, made it work. One instance that comes to mind is a hilarious, if entirely tangential interlude wherein Vince, played by a just-slimy-enough Sean Carufel, describes how he'd make love to an anonymous woman on the phone-for lack of a better term.
Kerry Giorgi added another winning performance to her year, having adroitly played opposite Emily Lewis in "The Other Place" at Epic last fall. Her Nora has the biggest arc to travel in the play, and it's her story we care the most about. Some of the transitions are choppy (months go by without the audience really knowing) but Giorgi navigates this and brings the audience along. Over the course of 90 minutes, she goes from naïve and work-obsessed to jaded and world-weary, and quite well.
Nora though, however disappointingly, comes back to ask for her job after the climactic walk-out scene. This is probably the most disappointing part of Headland's script - the characters take the abuse from Daniel for 90 minutes, and never talk back. When they do, they never quite seem to go far enough, and everyone comes crawling back in the end. It feels a little disingenuous, as if Headland found commenting on greed and human nature more important than allowing her characters to come across as fully-fleshed out human beings.
That's not to say that the actors, helped along by solid direction from Ross Gavlin, haven't done a respectable job with the script. Allie Meek, for example, takes what could have been a throwaway monologue in between a scene change - a phone call with her mother about losing her job - and turns it into one of the finest moments of the night. Similarly, Amanda Grossi's Jenny was a delightful injection of upbeat energy mixed with barely hidden venom late in the evening. And Michael Shallcross's Justin had the audience in tears with his bordering-on-high-school-bully relationship with the occasionally vicious Nick.
All in all, it was an evening of fine performances of a script that didn't quite seem to know if it wanted to be a workplace comedy or a commentary on corporate America, and ended up falling a bit short in both instances.
"Assistance" closed at Epic Theatre Company's Theatre 82 space in Cranston on February 22nd. Up next for Epic Theatre is "The Great God Pan" by Amy Herzog, running in March.
Photo Credit Kevin Brocolli