Assistance: Climbing Up the Company Ladder

The set-up:

Playwright Leslye Headland once worked for Harvey Weinstein, legendary founder of Miramax and producer of acclaimed films that wedded financial success to critical acclaim. Headland has written Assistance, a comedy based on six assistants working for a tyrannical boss, and while the playwright has provided the usual disclaimers that it is a work of fiction, patrons are free to form their own opinions. The execution:

The playwright is no lazy satirist skewering easy targets, but is a skilled professional who has fleshed out the situation and the characters with nuanced variations, and with subtle wit. The expected cliché is that a tyrannical boss is despised by his underlings, but here he is both feared and admired for his accomplishments. The boss in Assistance is Daniel Weisinger, and we learn his personality very clearly from the responses of assistants on telephone calls with him.- he is a bully, a pedant, oblivious to the needs of others, and cold and distant, not above asking if two of his assistants are having sex. It's clear he would disapprove vehemently, though the same rule wouldn't necessarily apply to him. He doesn't just chastise underlings, he humiliates them.

Why do they stay? Ambition is the fuel, and the goal is to ascend the ladder of success, and to make it big themselves. Some of the assistants have schemed for years to land the menial positions, because advancement from them is possible. The comedy opens with Vince getting promoted, and we see his helpfulness in advising his replacement, Nick, but in a later scene, we see another side of Vince, his delight that interns aren't paid, and how his newly-minted authority is used for sexual advancement. Black Lab Theatre's Artistic Director Jordan Jaffe, who directed the comedy, plays Vince, and nails both sides of Vince - his smug satisfaction with his promotion is hilarious.

The replacement is portrayed by Adam Gibbs, who is the central character, as he remains Weisinger's first assistant for the two-year time-span covered, training other assistants, and waiting for his own advancement. Gibbs is brilliant, with rich body language, great comic timing, and convincingly portraying an underling who has kept his integrity. He nurtures newbie Nora, filling his slot as he takes Vince's, and he and Nora (Rebekah Stevens Gibbs) generate some interesting chemistry onstage, perhaps no surprise as they are newlyweds in real life.

Lindsay Ehrhardt plays Heather, another assistant, and in a beautifully written telephone conversation with her mother, whose brother has just died, creates the poignancy the moment requires. Tim Ashby enters late as Justin, a flunky who was involved in an accident when with Weisinger in London, and who is convinced it was his own fault, despite all evidence to the contrary. Emily Campion is a late-arrival assistant, playing Jenny, but she brings with her humor, poise, sophistication, and the glitter of success. She is not the usual desperate assistant, and Weisinger seems to appreciate that. And she has an out-of-the-blue comic turn as the finale that is exuberant and wonderful.

The acting is universally excellent, and the pace brisk - there is no intermission, and virtually all scenes occur in the same office where telephone calls are received and placed. The assistants are adept at double-tasking, and can engage in office banter while fielding phone calls. Playwright Headland is skilled at double-tasking herself, and has created an authentic milieu, where ambition undermines self-esteem, to rich comic effect, but she has also said something serious and revealing about human nature. She is gifted, and Black Lab Theatre has given this comedy the production it deserves - well-cast, brilliantly directed, and with its humor delivered comically and yet realistically. The verdict:

A very contemporary comedy about working for a tyrannical boss digs deeper to lace the rich comedy with insights into human nature. This is a triumph of casting and direction, and a delightful romp in the fields of corporate ambition - seen from below.

Assistance continues through October 5, from Black Lab Theatre, at Wildfish Theatre, 1703-D-1 Post Oak Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-515-4028 or contact