Cubicles. Laptops. Coffee mugs. Telephone headsets. The set of Assistance, Leslye Headland’s play at Playwrights Horizons, does not resemble a desert landscape with a single leafless tree. But this bleak comedy of the workplace suggests Waiting for Godot in a contemporary setting, a show centered on a shadowy character who never appears. Though Headland locates the play in the office of the Daniel Weisinger Company, the boss materializes only as a set of numbers flashing on a desk phone, digits that send his personal assistants into paroxysms of terror as they struggle to satisfy his demands.
Weisinger’s business is never confirmed. Is he a financier, a philanthropist, an international man of mystery? Unknown. Instead, the play focuses on six of his assistants, seemingly smart and competent young people who dissolve into jibbering wrecks at the sound of their master’s voice. Headland treats these underlings with a particular mix of empathy and contempt, concentrating primarily on Nora (a sympathetic Virginia Kull) and Nick (the winning Michael Esper, working a slacker’s charm offensive). Nick, who lacks the cutthroat drive to advance in the organization, gets stuck training Nora, a young woman whose idealism soon morphs into brittle scorn. Sallow under the fluorescent lights, the pair dance around an office romance, but they’re both too debilitated to manage fancy footwork.
Headland made her New York debut in 2010 with Bachelorette, a play that much resembles Assistance. It, too, centered on an absent figure (although in Bachelorette, she did finally appear onstage) and also veiled weaknesses in plotting with shock-and-awe deployment of one-liners, at which Headland excels. In Assistance, a box of fancy cigarettes tastes “like an especially good episode of Mad Men.” The date of an upcoming meeting is “confirmed like a 12-year-old Catholic.” And again, just as in the earlier show, characters use this self-conscious cleverness to spackle over the noisy desperation of their lives. Without the insults, the in-jokes, the comedy routines, these put-upon P.A.s would have to admit that they are indentured to a psychopath at wages so low, “We’d make more money balloon-folding at children’s parties.”
Assistance serves as one of Headland’s Seven Deadly Sins plays, this one nominally about greed, though wrath or pride (and its humbling) better describe the office environment. And that’s the trouble and the joy of the piece. Amid the maze of quick and clever dialogue, significant ideas and emotions fade out or flutter away. In the dark of the theater, delighted with Trip Cullman’s energetic direction and the efforts of the game cast, the playing time flies by. But in the car or train home, left to think through the play’s implications, it seems less aerodynamic, unable to bear the weight of too much analysis. You want to connect to these characters, to understand their experience, to bestow better futures on them, but the play leaves us—and them—perpetually on hold.