In “Assistance,” onstage at Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre through May 4, young assistants to a Donald Trump-like wheeler and dealer with a short temper and a sadistic streak compete, cower, connive, commiserate and occasionally assist one another as they try to get by in the high-pressure lion’s den that their boss, whom we never see, has created with his constant demands. The play represents Los Angeles-based playwright Leslye Headland’s take on greed in her series of seven works based on the Seven Deadly Sins.
Last season, Pinch ‘N’ Ouch staged an excellent production of Headland’s “Bachelorette,” the gluttony entry in the series, about a group of backstabbing bridesmaids gorging themselves on booze, pills, boys and anything else they can get their hands on in a luxury hotel room the night before a big wedding.
One big problem with “Assistance” is that there’s far too much telephone-based business for a play. We’re asked to listen in on one-sided conversations from beginning to end, and we’re stuck with the same situation again and again, with slightly different arrangements of characters: the boss calls with some unmet demand, and the whole office goes into a noisy tizzy as someone is sought to take the blame.
It’s meant to show the effects of greed and competition on human relationships, but it’s hard to pick out anyone to care about. Pinch ‘N’ Ouch has assembled a strong cast. Barrett Doyle as Justin does a nice comedic turn as the intern so obsequious that he seems to be physically falling apart, and Mandi Lee portrays the cool-as-a-cucumber British assistant as someone monstrously, almost nightmarishly perfectly fit for the job.
But the boss himself never enters. His absence is sort of mythic. He’s a character who looms large through that absence, but still the play’s center seems to stay offstage; we can never judge for ourselves whether he’s worth all the fuss. The script’s take on greed and ambition doesn’t measure up to the play that Pinch ‘N’ Ouch staged in February with Artistic Director Grant McGowan’s “Let’s Make It,” which examined the same subject — a relationship straining under ambition — but with far more tenderness, incisiveness and intelligence. In “Assistance,” we’re given a busy surface with very little happening underneath.