Hip Shot: The Program Assistant
Redrum – Fort Fringe
Tuesday, July 15 at 6:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 19 at 10:45 p.m.
Sunday, July 20 at 3:30 p.m.
Friday, July at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, July at 2:15 p.m.
They Say: Best friends and roommates Laura and Charlie apply for the same job at the State Department. One of them gets it. Then everything goes wrong. A hilarious and penetrating look at DC #postgradlife.
Joshua’s Take: The problem with Washington– as opposed to D.C.– is that it attracts young, ambitious people who are very smart and very boring. It’s one reason dating is so hard in this town. Take two fairly unattractive twentysomethings, bring them together for overpriced drinks, allow them to slowly realize how little, despite their educations, they actually have to talk about, and sparks are somewhat unlikely to fly. And the same goes for bringing such people to life on stage. We all know that they exist and are in some way important, but how to make them interesting? Decorated Fringe veteran John Krizel’s solution in The Program Assistant is to render them as broad, likable characters, and give them clever lines but not much depth.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Program Assistant is, at its heart, a comedy about work, with only a tangential interest in relationships. “Are you sure this is really the job for you?” asks Ben (Aaron Porter), a milquetoast academic, to his workaholic girlfriend Laura (Katie Ryan) midway through the play. That’s the question this show wrestles with; the stakes never get any higher than that. And the job is a coveted gig with the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, for which Laura has beat out her more qualified best friend and roommate Charlie (Abigail Casey). These besties are each recent George Washington University graduates and Arabic majors with dreams of working for the State Department. Both are clearly smart, well-adjusted young women from relatively privileged backgrounds.
As the play progresses, some mild, natural jealousy over the job (and a few other things) leads them into the kind of tiff that all friendships weather, usually with a minimum of tears. And that’s exactly what the play walks us through, with some welcome laughs and sharp observations along the way. Any time a fight threatens to break out, or we start to sense (hope?) that maybe the girls will really go off on each other, earnestness and civility win the day.
Every character in The Program Assistant seems to believe in the existence of ruthless, acid-tongued, pathological Beltway narcissists straight out of an unfunny episode of Veep, but no such asshole ever puckers up on stage. There’s some mild nepotism going on at the State Department, yes, and some mild disillusionment follows in its wake, but that’s about it. And despite dialogue liberally peppered with “fuck” and a few vaguely radical condemnations of “the system” from Occupy D.C. veteran-turned-bartender Mike (Steve Isaac), The Program Assistant is a wholesome, apolitical affair, in which totally ordinary growing pains are endured with admirable poise by a bunch of not-at-all-smug, hardly-insufferable, optimistic Millennials who mostly to have their shit together. This is actually something of a refreshing take on the so-called boomerang generation: these young adults, for all their foibles, are still adults. But that also seems to be the source of the play’s decidedly non-confrontational bent; the worst Charlie and Laura ever give one another is the silent treatment. If you’re looking for passion and rage, whether in response to crushing student debt or underemployment or drone strikes or really anything else, you won’t find it here.
What you will find, however, are plenty of well-observed moments I imagine will strike a chord with many in the audience.There are, for instance, a few choice jabs at the GW student body, and at insufferable study-abroad graduates who just won’t shut up about Tajikistan or wherever. Our heroines are middle class white girls who are (presumably) proficient in Arabic but can’t speak Spanglish enough to make chit-chat with the kitchen staff. Charlie has shouldered a massive financial burden for her education, and resents — quite rightly — being expected to work for free not in spite, but because of the fact that she went to college. Social media play a prominent role in these characters’ lives, but while the press material– #postgradlife!– had me steeled for hamfisted Instragram jokes and the like, the play actually avoids, for the most part, cheap tech references and easy grasps at timeliness.
All the performances here feel comfortable and restrained, as they should: the actors are merely inhabiting yuppie archetypes and I’d imagine, if the program is any guide, often playing versions of themselves. Casey and Ryan carry the show and sketch out a believable friendship. Paul Lysek, Jr., as the affable but self-serving intern Will (he’s about as nasty as any character gets here, and he still seems like a more or less decent guy), gets the show’s best line (about a yoga pose) and half the play’s best laughs; the other half go to Amanda Spellman as Rachel, another struggling postgrad with a foul mouth and a low tolerance for bullshit. Milica Bogetic, as Laura’s hippy-dippy boss Zaree, has her character’s aloof, condescending body language down, but needs to speak the hell up so the back row can actually hear her when she casually punctures Laura and Charlie’s egos.
The only serious problem with the play’s spare, unremarkable staging are the unwelcome, bumbling blackout transitions that muck up the rhythm of an otherwise briskly written work. The quick leaps between Laura and Charlie’s worlds that surely read well on the page are far too frequent, and prove difficult for Krizel to juggle on stage. (Here we have that most familiar specimen of contemporary stage drama: the would-be screenplay.) Many times I found myself wishing that Krizel would give his actors something else to fidget with besides a visibly empty Starbucks coffee, and also that he were not a fan of Third Eye Blind. But these are minor complaints.
If Washington is, as Christopher Hitchens once wrote, a company town where nothing gets made, why do so many bright young things hang their hopes on the chance to do so little? This play either isn’t interested in asking such questions or assumes you’ll bring your own answer along with you to the theater. And I suspect many of you will. If so, then enjoy The Program Assistant: it’s for you.
See it if: You are now, have ever been, or will one day be a D.C. area postgrad; if you’re sick of seeing Millennials depicted as dead-eyed Facebook profiles made of meat; if you know what the hell a program assistant does or why a person would want to become one.
Skip it if: You prefer your slice-of-Washington-life served up skewered and seared, or tend to pass on that dish altogether.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misidentified the actor playing the role of Mike. Steve Isaac is the actor in that role.