Leslye Headland’s 2008 comedy “Assistance,” a funny, biting and satiric look at millennials in the workplace questioning their futures, receives its local premiere Feb. 21-24 courtesy of Playground Theatre at the PNC Arts Annex.
At the unnamed office of powerful unseen magnate Daniel Weisinger, six traumatized young assistants cope with his overbearing demands while coming to terms with the true cost of sacrifice and survival. Will their hard work lead to success — or just more work?
“In this country, and among everyone including millennials, there’s an idea that we have to achieve a certain level of success in order to find happiness, but we’re completely killing ourselves,” said director and Playground Theatre co-founder Jenna Valyn. “And when we get to that level of success, are we happy?”
“We all have this idea that our work will set us free,” echoed A.J. Breslin, who portrays arrogant Vince. “Even if we’re killing ourselves in our jobs, we’re so committed to thinking we’ll turn the corner and see the light at the end of the tunnel or we’ll get that promotion and make it further. And in this pursuit, we’ll let everything else go, including our relationships and our true feelings about ourselves and the world. We’re willing to drown in our work, thinking we’re swimming toward success.”
“As millennials, I think many of us struggle with finding work/life balance and finding a career that we care about that also offers financial security,” added Rae Buchanan, who portrays overachieving Jenny and appeared opposite Breslin last fall in Playground’s thriller “The Feast.” “The assistants in this show are all striving to find something more. They believe this job will be a stepping stone, but during this struggle they find themselves stuck and miserable. I completely relate to this. When will we stop and examine the extremes we are in hoping the next step brings joy? I don’t have the answer and I don’t know if the characters do either.”
Based in reality
“Assistance,” a one-act play, is among Headland’s ongoing series of comedic morality plays examining The Seven Deadly Sins, including “Bachelorette” which Playground commendably staged last season. Currently responsible for co-creating Netflix’s acclaimed comedy “Russian Doll” with Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne, she crafted the play from her own experience working as one of Harvey Weinstein’s assistants.
“My own obsession with being ‘good enough,’ with being ‘successful’ and with executing completely pointless acts day in and day out had, at some point, shifted from a healthy post-collegiate ambition to an empty routine that was the sole validation for myself,” said Headland in a 2012 interview with Playwrights Horizons. “It gave my life meaning. A lot of people make their jobs their life. A lot of those people probably feel like they have to. Maybe money reinforces or cushions that choice. Maybe the dependence of a family necessitates it. But, for me, when my job became both my prison and my salvation, it was a devastating realization that spurred me toward a new life. When I look back on my frustration, I have to laugh. If you’re in hell but you think you’re in heaven, that’s funny to everyone but you.”
Holding a mirror to life
In addition to Breslin and Buchanan, the cast includes Playground co-founder Chris Hahn as Nick, Jenna Gomes de Gruy as Nora, Timothy Moore as Justin, and Lindsay Sherman as Heather. All acknowledge the title’s double-meaning, especially considering how important teamwork is within the workplace in spite of dysfunction.
“All the characters need each other in some way whether they want to admit it or not,” said Sherman, who will deliver her Playground debut having appeared in many musicals with Dare to Defy Productions. “Everyone has their own connections. No one openly says ‘I care about you’ or ‘I want to help you,’ but they are a support system for each other nonetheless.”
“Playground is here to hold a mirror up to our audience,” added Valyn, who regards the script as reminiscent of such sitcoms as “Friends,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “The Office.” “As much as we want the audience to laugh and enjoy this show because it’s a really fun, fast-paced, high-octane show, there are moments in which they will ask themselves are they really happy in their job. As a playwright, Leslye has a very specific way of writing characters and dialogue with an absurd comic style, yet unlike in ‘Bachelorette,’ there is more of a resolution. I like to find the hope in every single show I do and this show will contain a glimmer of hope. We all need assistance.”