On the surface, Leslye Headland’s play Assistance at Theatre Vertigo is about playing with fire, trying to get close to the flame of celebrity and not get burned.
I knew a personal assistant once. He drove a Land Rover, a recent import, and it made him feel like a modern-day colonialist conquering the long stretches of Midwestern highway. Americans, for him, were still wayward children who could never rise to the level of European culture. Yet where we lacked sophistication, we made up for it with power and money. That’s what he wanted, and after the bigger paychecks started rolling in,he bought the most American of features, a new set of teeth. He worked 24/7 for this multi-millionaire CEO: picking up dry-cleaning at 11 p.m., waxing his car on Sunday afternoons, finding and scheduling the company of women. When the company’s accountant had cooked the books one too many a time for the IRS, the pyramid fell, and personal assistants were the first to go.
Somewhere between a factory and a conga line, assistants file in and out of Daniel Weisinger’s New York office in Assistance. He’s a composite off-stage character based on Anna Wintour, the chic Vogue editor-in-chief, and Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer. If reading TMZ or People isn’t your thing, these two high-powered people are know as genius enfants terribles. They can make and break celebrity and political careers. They can dish out great work and insults with an equal mastery.
Weisinger’s assistants, Nick (R. David Wyllie) and Vince (Tom Mounsey), first come off as mini-Trumps. They wield their careless toxic masculinity with grade school vocabulary. They’re self-described egotesticle. Vince is a frightening picture of what happens when you replace your ego with mountains of cocaine. As he climbs the ladder closer to Weisinger, his unstable temper mimics the bossman and blows up with more frequency. Nick, on the other hand, seems to be the meek of the earth on the surface. But he has reptile qualities beneath. Sporting Banana Republic outlet casual each day, he runs the efficient office by fear and goofy, tension-breaking jokes. He teases the other assistants by playing bits of a narwhal internet song. He’s passive-aggressive adorable: “Working for Daniel is like the last 30 minutes of Goodfellas.”
Nora (Kaia Maarja Hillier) is a spunky golden-locks whose life ambition is to be Daniel Weisinger. Like most of the assistants, she doesn’t realize that scheduling calls, handling emails and visits with children, ordering prescriptions, and booking flights won’t make you a top Hollywood producer. Assistance is a Damocles sword of anxiety hanging over the office workers’ heads. Nora starts out with a plucky spirit that becomes a static mess as she nears a nervous break. Nora and Nick are the same sides of a coin: they drink the boss’s liquor, smoke his cigarettes, and give up all their energy for him. They compartmentalize Weisinger’s verbal abuse and become apathetical and cruel to everyone around them, but most of all to themselve:. “Now we’ve been people briefly, we can go back to being assistants.”
Heather (Jenn Hunter) is lower on the totem pole, and the snarky office twins in one scene have a hard time not cracking up when Heather asks for time off to go to a funeral. Hunter has a poignant monologue after she’s been trampled for the final time. In half angry outburst and half throat-choking sorrow, she painfully explains to her mother that her life is over, and begs to come home.
Justin (Heath Hyun-Houghton) is the intern, and while you’d think we’d have some empathy for his newbie status, he’s the most vicious of assistants. While limping around in a leg cast, he still manages to lick Weisinger’s boots and take out any person blocking his path to the top. He’s an alpha-alpha male. While on the phone firing his therapist, he pretends to believe in and behave like a good socialized person. But he’s burned the Machiavellian rules of the game into his psyche, and any of his kind words carry a heavy price tag.
Clara-Liis Hillier’s Jenny is a beautiful Brit with pulled-back coal hair and neat Kardashian-inspired pantsuits. She smiles like an angler fish about to devour its prey. The last to arrive on stage, she’s the least affected personality. She doesn’t bother to hide her predator nature; rather, she flaunts how well she’s groomed herself as a corporate Mata Hari. She’s the most delusional assistant, because she believes she’s not being used and won’t burn out. By play’s end her rocky 10-martini legwork lets us know only the big fish is going to survive.
Emily Wilken’s props help relieve some of the tense atmosphere with ingenious effect. The office looks like a slumlord’s paradise that a toddler’s coated with stickers. Sound designer Andrew Bray accompanies the actors with a well-crafted sound collage that matches the scenes point on point. His music got just as many laughs as the dialogue.
Playwright Headland’s script is sharp, not just with wit, but in its focus on what drives each of the characters to bend their lives over for a sociopath boss. The play has just been opted for television, and it’s easy to see how this could develop as an after-work Millenial catharsis. Director Brenan Dwyer takes Headland’s intentions at face value, not as a critique of poison management, but rather as a look into why people work hard when a boss has no investment in them. Dwyer’s directing highlights the the cracks in an inhumane system, where the heart is trying to speak. You won’t like any of the characters in Assistance, but you’ll believe they’ll live on after the curtain closes, and you’ll hope they’ll grow into somebody nicer.
Theatre Vertigo’s Assistance continues through November 12 at the Showbox Theater. Ticket and schedule information here.