Review - Assistance: Caffeinate-the-Plow

In its opening moments, it would be completely understandable to assume that Assistance, Leslye Headland's viciously fun satire of the cutthroat dealings among entry-level twenty-somethings, might be mimicking David Mamet's dark comedy of film executives, Speed-the-Plow.

In the downtown Manhattan office (David Korins' terrifically detailed converted loft space set) of a company dealing in an unspecified business, Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), the just-promoted former first assistant to a high-powered, demanding boss, is celebrating his moving day with former second assistant, now bumped up to the first chair, Nick (Michael Esper). Theirs is a slickly moving verbal ping-pong of a relationship; the professional ass-kissing jerk and his slacker right-hand man, cocky and sarcastic when they're alone, but soft-spoken and humble when the big guy, the never-seen Daniel Weisinger, is on the phone with a steady stream of high-priority demands.

Vince's parting words to Nick are a reminder to always be working on an exit strategy. Make sure that the person beneath you is better at the job than you are, so the boss won't feel he's losing an irreplaceable assistant by promoting you. As the play progresses we see Nick's world as one of partnership and competitiveness, where passive aggression is just part of team-building.

Nick's new second is Nora (Virginia Kull). (Yes, Nick and Nora.) She's a transfer from the Canal Street office which is apparently where the company keeps its supply of sincerity and business ethics. She'll learn.

The episodic ninety-minute play allows Kull to make an uproarious comic impression, taking Nora from a well-groomed professional to a cynical, frustrated dynamo with no life outside of the office's exposed brick. She and Nick comprise one of those office marriages; starting off as a crackerjack team and dissolving into something out of Edward Albee. Their chemistry is thick during all phases of their relationship, with Esper effectively showing Nick's lack of ambition to be a sanity-preserving tool.

The only other characters in the play are those who come in taking turns at the third assistant position, with strong performances by Sue Jean Kim as the sweet but inept innocent trying to balance her career with her personal life (She doesn't stand a chance.), Amy Rosoff as the ambitious Brit who lets off steam guzzling drinks at bars then downs enough espressos to get her alert enough for work, and Bobby Steggert as the unflappable overachiever who brings new meaning to taking one for the team.

Balancing acerbic, clever dialogue with some very funny monologue scenes, Headland's text is smart and energetic, staged by Trip Cullman (Perhaps the best director in New York that hasn't been nabbed by Broadway.) with his exemplary light comedic touch that straddles reality and fantasy.

I won't pretend to fully get the meaning of the ending, but Headland, Cullman, Korins, Rosoff and choreographer Jeffrey Denman combine for a wild Busby Berkeley-like finish that will send you out with a big smile; even if it's a cynical one.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Michael Esper and Virginia Kull; Bottom: Sue Jean Kim.

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"I love awards, especially if I get them."

-- Ben Gazzara

The grosses are out for the week ending 3/4/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE ROAD TO MECCA (7.9%),

Down for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-32.0%), PORGY AND BESS (-22.7%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-22.5%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-21.7%), MEMPHIS (-18.6%), VENUS IN FUR (-16.7%), JERSEY BOYS (-16.1%), CHICAGO (-14.8%), MARY POPPINS (-14.1%), War Horse (-13.9%), MAMMA MIA! (-12.3%), SISTER ACT (-11.0%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-10.7%), ANYTHING GOES (-9.4%), GODSPELL (-9.1%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-8.2%), SEMINAR (-6.0%), WICKED (-5.5%), ROCK OF AGES (-4.2%), THE LION KING (-3.1%), WIT (-1.1%), DEATH OF A SALESMAN (-0.9%), SHATNER'S WORLD: WE JUST LIVE IN IT (-0.4%),

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