What can we do for an encore? It must have been a serious question behind the scenes at the Wilma this season — artistic director Blanka Zizka’s brilliant, recently concluded production of Angels in America is not an easy act to follow.
In the end, they didn’t even try. Instead, they went with Assistance, a snarky little 90-minute Generation-Y workplace comedy. Now, I have nothing against comedy. But on the heels of Angels, this feels a wee bit odd, like a double-bill pairing of legendary Holocaust doc Shoah with Weekend at Bernie’s.
Leslye Headland’s play might better be called Assistants, since the focus is on six young people who’ve had the fortune (or misfortune) to be hired by gazillionaire corporate media mogul Daniel Weisinger. (The boss is never seen, nor do we learn precisely what his company does, but seems like an amalgam of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, with all the warmth and charm that implies.) The upside: the possibility of unimaginable success. The more pressing drawback: To get there, they first have to survive working for this asshole.
There’s nothing fresh about the premise, but Headland keeps things moving and entertaining, and draws rich and distinctive characters among the group: rapacious Vince, eager-to-please Justin, preternaturally poised Jenny, and so on. Different though they may as individuals, what all the members of this merry band have in common is a willingness to do anything and everything to get ahead. (Assistance is the “greed” play in Headland’s ongoing Seven Deadly Sins cycle.)
The two central characters are named Nick and Nora (above, played by Kate Czajkowski and Kevin Meehan), which gave me a glimmer of hope for some Thin Man-style sophistication. But that’s not Headland’s plan — instead of martinis, Nick and Nora surreptitiously slurp pilfered whiskey out of coffee mugs in between swigs of Red Bull. And though there’s some attempt at brisk repartee (or what passes for it among the just-graduated climbing class), they’re all so hysterical over missed phone calls and other potentially firing-worthy errors that they can barely squeak out a coherent sentence.
But the problem with Assistance is that it’s a comedy that’s not very funny. (At least, not to this 57-year-old — maybe twentysomethings starting their first jobs will feel differently.) It’s clear that the dialogue is intended to shock, but though it’s vulgar, it’s also familiar and largely witless, producing at most mild blunt-force trauma.
It all might seem more amusing if the situation were the slightest bit plausible, but everything — especially the acting — in director David Kennedy’s production is so cranked up that we can’t believe these kids would last a minute in an office environment. The actors knock themselves out striving for comic virtuosity, but nearly all would have made a better impression by doing less. (The young and appealing Michael Doherty, for example, here mystifyingly seems to be channeling a middle-aged Charles Nelson Reilly at his most manic.)
As if there wasn’t already more than enough frenetic energy on stage, Headland’s play concludes with a strangely tacked-on finale — though it (ahem) brings down the house, it has virtually nothing to do with the rest of play, and, in fact, almost seems to contradict it. Though I believe this scene is actually part of the script, I can’t help thinking of it as a sort of Jiri Zizka Memorial Coup-de-Theatre: the Wilma’s late co-artistic director, who passed away a little less than a year ago, was similarly fond of ending productions with visually dazzling non sequiturs.
Any way you regard it, it was a perplexing end to a perplexing evening.
Through Feb. 3, $39-$54, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.