Leslye Headland’s comedy Assistance, currently on stage at the Wilma Theater, is not a great play. It is, however, one that will inspire much discussion about the nature of theater and how to attract young adults. It is obvious from the start that Headland aims her play at a very particular demographic, namely the 18- to 34-year-old crowd treasured by television advertisers and movie executives. It is also the age group that theater companies are desperate to reach in the hopes they will become lifetime theatergoers, even as they are becoming increasingly difficult to lure, given the ever-growing number of entertainment options available.
Headland is very specific about where the play takes place, which, according to the program, is “the office of Daniel Weisinger, Manhattan, somewhere below Canal Street,” and the so-called millennials are not only the target audience; they make up the personnel in Weisinger’s handsome, functional office. Suffice it to say, we are not in a Wall Street skyscraper.
Headland, who penned and directed last year’s hit film Bachelorette, clearly wants us to sympathize with the plight of these beleaguered workers, who spend nearly all their days (and nights) placing calls and making travel arrangements for their harsh, arrogant boss. (“Please hold” is the play’s most popular refrain.) Of course, given the fact that nearly 40 percent of 19- to 29-year-olds are out of work, it’s a little difficult to feel bad for anyone collecting a paycheck these days, regardless of their boss’ demeanor and which side of Canal Street they work on. Not that the office workers in Assistance take their jobs for granted: the security of employment and Weisinger’s reputation as an important dealmaker (Headland clearly wants us to imagine a Donald Trump-type figure) make this wildly ambitious bunch willing to put up with their demanding employer, who seems to have a peculiar fondness for demeaning his young employees.
It’s important to note that we never actually see Weisinger in the play. There is some dialogue between the office staff, but everything we know about Weisinger is second-hand knowledge either told to the audience by workers or deduced based on their reactions during telephone chats with the boss. Portraying one-half of a phone conversation may be a useful exercise for actors, but Assistance is so phone-heavy that it eventually grows tiresome. The play would benefit from more face-to-face communication.
Despite its limitations, there is no denying Headland’s talent as a writer. Assistance bears a resemblance to NBC’s The Office—in fact, the network has announced plans to develop the play as a television sitcom—but the rapid-fire dialogue is more reminiscent of the classic film His Girl Friday. Where it differs is that Headland’s play has no real plot to speak of. Instead, the workers busy themselves with putting out one fire after another. Weisinger, however, is apparently so hyper-demanding that what passes for a crisis in Assistance is really just a minor triviality, and the only suspense—if you could call it that—is about who will get fired and who will get promoted.
Thankfully, director David Kennedy’s fine, six-member cast is able to develop Headland’s shallow characters into something akin to real people, led by Kevin Meehan, who, after Vince (Jake Blouch in a disappointingly narrow performance) is promoted, takes over the job of being the head assistant in the three-person office. Meehan, who in the past two seasons has become one of the city’s most unpredictable and exciting actors, plays Nick, a go-getter who always seems to be on the verge of a promotion that never materializes. Exuding a mix of determination, desperation and exhaustion, Nick regularly takes out his frustration on his co-workers, and his bipolar personality, combined with Weisinger’s outrageous demands, leads to a high turnover rate among the workers. In supporting roles, Kate Czajkowski manages to be sympathetic as Nora, whose dream job—after idolizing Weisinger for most of her young life—turns into a 24/7 nightmare of demeaning tasks and a badly deflated ego; Michael Doherty turns in a confident performance as the troubled Justin, while Kahyun Kim delivers the production’s lone touching moment as a worker who has to choose between her job and attending a funeral.
Unfortunately, the play’s ending is somewhat anticlimatic. We’re left with the sense that Assistance will work better as a TV sitcom than a piece of theater, which is good news for NBC—and Headland’s bank account—but not so welcome if you’re looking for an insightful examination of the 21st-century workforce.
Through Feb. 3. $39-$66. Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. 215.546.7824. wilmatheater.org
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