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I don't wanna leave. I hate it here and I don't want to leave. — Nora.
Michael Esper
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Leslye Headland has saved the funniest and most entertaining scene of Assistance for the end. Actually, that surreal finale is less a triumph for the playwright than for set designer David Korins and choreographer Jeffry Denman. It's a slam-bang, finale for the preceding and not as slam-bang wonderful 80 minutes preceding it. The rat-a-tat motor-mouthed solo arias and duets that define the less than worthy, greed-powered ambitions of a group of mid-20s college graduates aren't all that much edgier than a TV sitcom with an office setting.

Headland keeps Daniel Weisinger, the megalomaniacal billionaire boss, unseen, but that doesn't make him any the less the boss from hell. As his name is firmly imprinted on one of the the gray, prison-like office's doors, so Weisinger hovers, big brother-like over his underlings' every move. The source of Weisinger's wealth and fame is equally unspecified but Donald Trump, Rudoph Murdoch, various movie moguls as well as the bitchy fashion editor in The Devil Wears Pavda come to mind. It doesn't really matter what products or services have made Weisinger the sort of household name that's a magnet for ambitious young men and women eager enough to have the glitter of fame and fortune rub off on them.

The gray office in which we watch the lively cast of six play their version of assistant shuffle, a nasty version of musical chairs has none of the trappings of a world famous, glamorous organization. The three desks are surrounded by a mountain of boxes and envelopes (though the assistants spend incredibly long hours here it's as if no one's had the time to make things neater and more homelike — besides, each new assistant's goal is to get out of this lower depth of the Weisinger empire and move to the unseen better Weisinger world across the hall.

Nick and Nora (Michael Esper and Virginia Kull), the two assistants with the most stage time, do indeed exchange plenty of hip barbs, shades of their counterparts in Dashiell Hammett's popular mystery series. But, while Hammett's rich and glamorous part-time detectives had lots of fun, this Nick and Nora are masochistically trapped in serving the boss to whom they have foolishly hitched their career wagons. Even their romantic urges are relegated to moments stolen away from their indentured servant drudgery.

The reason every day at Weisinger's bottom tier outpost is Casual Friday is summed up in Nora's explanation of why she's become so tense: "it hurts when I pee" and "Inever sleeps more than 5 hours"). The meager salaries also don't make expensive clothes affordable, and for Heather (Sue Jean Kim) the poor wages cause her to max out her credit.

Unless you really buy into Headly's slick, glib dialogue, watching the excellent Esper and Kull and the rest of this 6-member ensemble isn't nearly as much fun as the already mentioned finale. The plot's only suspense revolves around which, if any, of these six collegiate drones will have the good sense to trade this self-esteem robbing power trip for a more meaningful and human existence? Trip Cullman does fine work to keep the energy pumped up and the previously praised David Korins' colleagues also do fine work.

Assistance may seem to be a far remove from another just reviewed play, Hurt Village. However, both revolve around characters trapped by circumstance as well as their own failings. The circumstances entrapping Katori Hall's residents are of course more devastating and insurmountable than Leslye Headland's assistants who bought into the media's glamorization of fame. Still, it's sad to see so many privileged enough to go to good schools Nick and Noras biting the greed bait. It would be nice to see them becoming more concerned for their much more impoverished fellow citizens instead of kowtowing to their greed- is- good, buyllying masters in order to be close to someone famous.

Assistance by Leslye Headland
Directed by Trip Cullman
Cast: Michael Esper (Nick), Sue Jean Kim (Heather), Virginia Kull (Nora), Lucas Near Verbrugghe, (Vince), Amy Rosoff (Jenny Bobby Steggert (Justin)
Scenic design by David Korins
Costume design by Jessica Pabst
Lighting design by Ben Stanton
Sound design by Jill BC Du Boff
Choreographer: effry Denman
Stage Manager:s Kyle Gates
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater 416 West 42nd Street (212) 279-4200
From 2/03/12; opening 2/28/12; closing 3/11/12
Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2:30 PM & 8PM and Sundays at 2:30 PM & 7:30 PM, with an additional Monday evening performance on February 27 at 7PM.
Single tickets, $70. Rush tickets available.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer February 27th
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