Michael Esper and Virginia Kull in Assistance
(© Joan Marcus)
Michael Esper and Virginia Kull in Assistance
(© Joan Marcus)
Just as so many "dysfunctional family" plays (i.e. August: Osage County, Other Desert Cities) ultimately leave audiences feeling better about their own clans, Leslye Headland's scathingly funny Assistance, now receiving its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, may make you appreciate your job no matter what its shortcomings are.

Headland -- who scored a major Off-Broadway hit last year with the even bleaker Bacholerette -- once again appears to be writing what she knows, as she details the interaction of six employees of the unseen Daniel Weisinger, a mega-mogul of some sort who, via phone, consistently berates, frustrates, and psychologically abuses the eager young men and women who come to work for -- and worship -- him. (Headland worked in a similar capacity for movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.)

The show -- which transpires over three years -- shines its primary focus on Nick (the ever-engaging, ever-heartwrenching Michael Esper), a slackerish, jokester type with vague (and seemingly vain) hopes of getting promoted from assistant to manager, and Nora (Virginia Kull), whom we meet on her first day -- which starts at 8pm on a Friday, after she's been kept waiting in the lobby for four hours by the just-promoted Vince (a suitably obnoxious Lucas Near-Verbugghe).

Kull, in her finest stage performance to date, beautifully delineates Nora, a clearly bright girl who seems cut out for better things, even if she doesn't believe it. She quickly admits she's taken the demanding job because of a Washington Post story she read on Daniel when she was a teen, and aspires to a similar career -- but her dream will not only be deferred, but possibly destroyed.

Not only does she lose her idealism during her tenure at Daniel's office (realistically and cleverly designed by the great David Korins), she eventually loses her boyfriend, her poise, and, briefly, her sanity. And her stop-and-go attempts at forging a romantic relationship with the detached Nick prove to be just as doomed as her career path.

Smartly not cramming too much -- if conversely, not saying too much of substance -- into the play's mere 85 minutes, Headland also introduces three other memorable characters. Heather (Sue Jean Kim), a somewhat inept young woman caving into parental pressure; Jenny (Amy Rosoff), a seemingly cooler-than-a-cucumber Brit; and Justin (Bobby Steggert), who continues to drink the company KoolAid even after sustaining physical injury.

Each character is not only given significant interactions with Nick and Nora (yep), but is also given a scene-stealing, monologue-type moment in the spotlight. And each actor, under Trip Cullman's savvy directon, makes the utmost of what they've been handed. Which is more than one can say for Headland's characters.