The Wilma’s Hilarious Ensemble Offers an Egregious View of Office Politics in ASSISTANCE

Contemporary playwright Leslye Headland brings a post-modern spin to the traditional theme of The Seven Deadly Sins in her ongoing series of comedic morality plays, each examining a different transgression in the context of current life. ASSISTANCE, running at the Wilma Theater through February 3, considers how greed affects America’s Millennial Generation in the workplace. It is an issue that is particularly relevant now, with our dismal economy, staggering unemployment rate, and limited opportunities for recent grads, in a popular culture that covets wealth, fame, and power–too often at the expense of ethics, personal relationships, and emotional stability.

The one-act play is set in an office in downtown Manhattan, shared by an overlapping sequence of six young assistants–the consistently excellent Jake Blouch, Kevin Meehan, Kate Czajkowski, Kahyun Kim, Emily Althaus, and Michael Doherty–to international business tycoon Daniel Weisinger (the big graphic W on the set’s office door is a telling detail, since it is widely assumed that the play was inspired by Headland’s brief stint as movie magnate Harvey Weinstein’s personal assistant). Capricious, arbitrary, and belligerent, the boss remains unseen and unheard, but his character is revealed through his staff’s mocking impersonations and frantic, sycophantic reactions to his abusive phone calls and tyrannical demands—all written with acerbic wit by Headland and played with farcical precision by the Wilma’s spot-on cast.

The dilemma the assistants face, collectively and individually, is all too familiar, as they become increasingly stressed out, competitive, and manic in the rat race of the business world—even in an ostensibly progressive company where they call their boss “Daniel,” graffiti art by Jean-Michel Basquiat hangs in his inner office, and the dress code for every day is “casual Friday.” Though they’re overworked, undervalued, and miserable, sacrificing their personal lives for their menial jobs, they understand that they’re readily replaceable, and will not so easily find employment, or better working conditions, elsewhere. And they still hold on to that naive glimmer of hope in the promise of promotion, financial gain, and success through their association with the iconic Weisinger.

Under the dynamic direction of David Kennedy (who also did a bang-up job with THE UNDERSTUDY in The Wilma’s 2010-11 season), the impressive “Gen Z” actors bring the perfect combination of comedic flair, emotional tension, and reckless young energy to the pressure cooker of their characters’ lives, as they pull all-nighters at the office, slug down shots of energy drinks and whiskey, smoke $17/pack cigarettes, and become completely unraveled by their exhausting lifestyle (“It’s not a job, it’s a choice”), while passing the blame, conniving, and manipulating each other to get ahead and to remain in Daniel’s good graces.

Kevin Meehan as Nick turns in a knock-out performance with his flawless, rapid-fire speech and non-stop physicality, nailing his character’s laughable colloquialisms, annoying nicknames, overgrown frat-boy behavior, and cavalier indifference to his underlings (“By ‘intern’ I mean my assistant I’m not paying”). Kate Czajkowski is an equal match as Nora, as she transitions from nervous new hire to crazed and desperate workaholic, and Kahyun Kim (Heather) and Michael Doherty (Justin) give especially intense and hilarious meltdowns, in dramatic spotlighting designed by Thom Weaver.

The ringing phones, rolling calls, and ticking clocks of Nick Kourtides’ skillful sound design contribute to the frenetic mood of the office environment and the angst of the harried assistants. Only the final absurdist fantasy sequence, though well played by Althaus as the cool, British, passive-aggressive Jenny, goes on too long and seems like an oddly out-of-synch addendum to the otherwise keen and amusing send-up of avarice in our time.

ASSISTANCE has been optioned by NBC for a television series to be produced by Will Ferrell, but why wait for the sit-com version when you can see the original play now, in a stellar production at the Wilma?