By Manning Harris
Leslye Headland’s “Assistance,” performed by the Pinch ‘n’ Ouch Theatre through May 4, is a firecracker of a play. Directed by UGA’s George Contini, the show is a slice of life in the rat race of corporate employment. There’s a touch of Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” and a touch of “Devil Wears Prada,” all sort of played at warp speed, performed by six terrific actors – three women, three men.
The six characters are all quaking in servitude to a boss named Daniel Weisinger, whom they (and the audience) never see. The telephone becomes, in essence, another character. The setting is Manhattan, somewhere near Canal Street — not Wall Street, not Madison Avenue — but a locale where the workers throb with ambition and frustration. “I hate it here, and I don’t want to leave!” says Nora (Morgan Pelligrino), reflecting the maddening ambiguity of knowing that having a job these days is a priceless commodity, yet wanting escape, promotion, and advancement at the same time.
And who can you trust? That’s the question everybody’s asking themselves. It’s certainly not Vince (Grant McGowen, also Artistic Director), who is called Charles Manson by some, “egotesticle” by others. I think I got that right; the lines are zipping by with such speed that you have to go “say what?” at times to be sure you decoded the latest salvo correctly. But the actors are not rushing; the characters are simply trying to survive being in the belly of the beast.
And it’s not Justin (Barrett Doyle) either. He enters rather late in the piece — too many unknowns about him. Actually, we don’t know much about anybody, really; fleshed-out characterization is not the game Ms. Headland’s playing here. These millennials are saved from being victimized humanoids by the charm, talent, and vulnerability of the attractive cast. Their plight becomes our entertainment; does that make us monsters? No, there’s too much wit, vim and vigor to not laugh.
Then there’s Joe Sykes as Nick; perhaps he is first among equals, along with Ms. Pelligrino. (Will the two of them become a couple? Can romance blossom in a war zone? You’ll have to see the show.)
“Just give me something to do!” says Heather, well-played by Liz Schad. And Jenny (Mandi Lee) evidently has a facility for languages — an ability that may give her a leg up with the never-present Daniel. He reminds me of Streep’s Miranda Priestly in “Prada,” except he’s male and invisible. But his ridiculous demands of his minions are similar.
Director George Contini has guided his actors extremely well: They are marvelous as they constantly interrupt and overlap one another in a manic dance of paranoia and ambition. Their verbal pyrotechnics alone are worth the price of admission.
At one point Heather says to her mother: “I am not important. This job is the only thing that makes me important.” It’s a serious comment on what we tell ourselves we have to do to have a job. I’m told that the playwright worked for Miramax and real-life Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who (unlike Daniel) encouraged her to write seriously. So while “Assistance” is not a diatribe against Miramax and Weinstein, she certainly used her experience as inspiration.
Broadway.com reports that NBC may be adapting the play for TV; Ms. Headland already has a screenwriting/directing credit in “Bachelorette.”
Meanwhile, Pinch ‘n’ Ouch is offering 90 minutes of fireworks in “Assistance.” It may be the hottest show in town; go.
For tickets and information, visit pnotheatre.org.