One of the current joys on the boards here in NYC, playing at Playwrights Horizons on Theatre Row 42nd Street, is a wonderfully funny, firecracker of a piece called “Assistance”, a new play by Leslye Headland. The talented Miss Headland had a play run here two summers ago for a woefully short run, called “Bachelorette”, about bridesmaids on the eve of a wedding in a posh hotel room. The cast was exceptional, the direction by the uber-talented Trip Cullman. Mr. Cullman began as a protege of the magnificent Joe Mantello, who himself was a protege of the legendary director Mike Nichols, and so the baton gets passed over the years. But Mr. Cullman, like Mantello and Nichols, is a master not just at physical staging, but at the quirky casting in which great directors excel. As the late great character actor Ken McMillan once told me, “Casting is 90% of the job of direction. You get a great cast and the rest is gravy”. Well, Cullman might well be considered one the theater’s gravy masters. His work over the past few years include Adam Bock’s “A Small Fire” ,“The Drunken City”, and my particular favorite, “Swimming In The Shallows”, which also had a woefully short run on the Upper west Side some years back. He’s also done terrific work on Terrence McNally’s “Some Men”, as well as Paul Weitz’s “Roulette”, and jonathan Tolin’s “The Last Sunday in June”. Happily, Mr. Cullman has topped all of these with his direction of “Assistance”.
“Assistance” will somehow, I guarantee, speak to everyone who sees it. It is about office workers, people waiting for their big breaks to move upward, about living in fear of rejection and the things people do to keep their heads above water. The characters in “Assistance” work for the unseen big guy, the holy of holies, the man who wields the power, and they are scared stiff of his power and his temper. One phone call will reduce them into infant puddles, while between the phone calls, they do what they must to survive-they play, they joke, they lash out, they engage in brief, not so casual sex, they WAIT. They wait for the big break to move “across the hall”, and become one step closer to God. Meanwhile, they also quietly, heartbreakingly, fall apart at the seams and do everything they can to exist in this hothouse environment without losing their dignity and their minds. The play is in turns, funny, quietly painful, and overtly heartbreaking. These are people who, as the playwright put it in an interview, doing “time logged”. They are on call 24 hours a day, no matter what office hours tend to be in normal life, which is why scenes in the play are set a various hours such as 11:00 at night, or 7:00 in the morning. And these people are there, on the phones, doing everything they can to make their boss happy without him knowing, or caring, how they’re achieving that mean feat. Ms. Headland actually worked for Harvey Weinstein, which explains so much about the abject terrors exhibited by these assistants-to-be, or assistants-in-waiting, which is what they really are. Interns are tortured, hazed (emotionally rather than physically) and put through the proverbial wringer, those in waiting for their move across the hall, treat the interns as they themselves are treated by the big man, and so the cycle of terror goes on and on.
What Trip Cullman has done in directing this play is nothing short of a small miracle-he has essentially choreographed the piece, eliminating the theater’s “fourth wall”, making us in the audience part of that terror these people are going through, putting all of us in their office and in their heads as well. when there’s the eventual breakdown by one of these characters, we feel the pain, we see the heartache, WE ARE THERE for the unraveling. It is one of the most fluidly beautiful stagings Mr. Cullman has ever pulled off, and I’m sure Mr. Mantello and Mr. Nichols would agree with me. The best will always pass their attributes down to those who understand what excellence should look like. Major props have to be given to this incredible cast-the always on point Michael Esper, who I’ve never seen give a less than stellar performance leads this incredible ensemble which also includes Virginia Kull, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Sue Jean Kim, Amy Rosoff, and in a small but vital role, one of my favorite actors, the wondrous Bobby Steggart. His appearance late in the play gives the piece a solid boost of vital energy and cruelty.
But to top everything off in the end, Mr. Cullman finishes the evening with a monologue by one of the characters which turns everything inside out and hits you like that tornado once hit Dorothy’s Kansas. As all Hell breaks loose, these people just keep dancing. It is the perfect ending to a perfectly staged play by a major new playwright. Bravo Trip Cullman.
You simply must see this play. Once again, Playwrights Horizons shows us what they do best.