From the playwright behind Sundance hit ‘Bachelorette,’ a new and biting tale of assistants to an evil, unseen boss

Virginia Kull and Michael Esper in Leslye Headland's 'Assistance.' (Joan Marcus)
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"I hate it here," says Nora after a particularly horrific day at the office. "And I don't want to leave."

That's the basic quandary at the core of Assistance, a sharp new comedy at Playwrights Horizons. Like her officemates, Nora has finally landed her dream job—working as an assistant to legendary businessman Daniel Weisinger—only to find out what a nightmare it truly is. Daniel is sadistic, manipulative, condescending, and utterly unreasonable in his demands; but his underpaid underlings endure his abuse in hopes of one day being promoted to a better position in his esteemed corporation where they won't have to take his shit anymore.

We've already seen plenty of stories about horrible bosses (Horrible Bosses, for instance) but Assistance manages to feel fresh. Perhaps it's because while most similar stories focus on the antagonism between the big wigs and the wide-eyed peons whom they torture, here the focus remains exclusively on the interactions between the people at the very bottom of the corporate ladder. In fact, the boss—a mogul whose exact occupation is never revealed—is never seen or heard. Imagine The Devil Wears Prada if it didn't need the devil to work. Or the Prada.

The play opens on Nora's first day: She arrives eager, rested, and well dressed. But all that soon starts to crumble, as she's shown the ropes by her immediate superior, Nick, who tries to burst her enthusiastic bubble while simultaneously grooming her to take over his desk—so he can be bumped up and out of the assistants' pool. (When Nick's predecessor was promoted to an office across the hall, he advised him: "Find someone who wants to be better at your job than you. Then make sure they succeed.") Unfortunately for everyone, Nick isn't sharp enough to get the promotion that's dangled in front of him—so Nora stays stuck in her secondary position for years, as a series of even lowlier interns cycle in and out of the office. There's only so long everyone can endure the low pay, the endless hours, and the constant haranguing from the jet-setting Daniel before they have breakdowns, no matter how much they smoke or drink or down bottles of Five-Hour Energy.

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The breakdowns are dramatic when they come. One intern cries at her mother on the phone after getting fired: "This is the only thing that made me important and now it's gone!" Another goes AWOL on a business trip after Daniel runs him over in a limo. Another gets sloshed and tells the boss to fuck himself. They cry, they threaten to walk out, they hold down the mute button and scream at their boss on the phone. But they can't bring themselves to quit. Anyone who's ever worked for a mentally unbalanced, utterly toxic, egomaniacal sociopath—I know I have—will see this more as tragic documentary than as farce.

Playwright Leslye Headland (whose critical 2010 stage success, Bachelorette, has been made into a movie that premiered this year at Sundance and stars Lizzy Caplan and Kirsten Dunst) weaves a tight narrative, full of barbed one-liners and fraught with tension. And Trip Cullman's brisk direction of the 85-minute intermissionless play is spot-on: The dialogue comes rapid-fire, and the emotional tone in the office keeps getting darker as the staffers get more exhausted, more hopeless about their situation. Interludes between the office scenes, where individual characters offer brief out-of-office monologues, are a mixed bag.

But the office scenes themselves are strong and concise, and telephone calls, where we only hear the other side of all the boss's brutal tirades—reminiscent of other recent off-Broadway plays like Fully Committed or Mistakes Were Made—are used to great comic effect.

Nora is the heart of the play, and Virginia Kull nails the role: ambitious and professional and flirtatious at the beginning, but beaten down and insecure and paranoid by the end.

As Nick, Michael Esper starts off appealing, teasing his co-workers, distracting them with inane YouTube videos, and making up nicknames for everyone; his character doesn't go far, though, and his shtick eventually grows stale. The secondary characters make briefer appearances and tend to be more one-note, but Sue Jean Kim makes an impression as Heather, the crying intern, and Amy Rosoff earns kudos for her turn as promising new assistant Jenny.

In fact, Jenny manages to steal the show at the very end. In the closing monologue, she has a breakdown so devastating—it involves tap dancing, an LCD Soundsystem song, and a well-placed sprinkler—that it literally destroys the office (David Korins' perfect replica of a Lower Manhattan converted loft). It seems to come out of nowhere in this otherwise semi-naturalistic script, and it lasts far longer than you'd think, but it builds and builds and somehow brings the evening to a thrilling, unexpected climax. When the applause comes, you're not sure if the audience is cheering Rosoff's manic routine, or the overdue destruction of Daniel Weisinger's evil empire.

Assistance is showing at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 W. 42nd St. Tickets are $70. Call 212-279-4200.