06/04/2013 01:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

It's no secret that some people respond to power as they would to an aphrodisiac. Whether they prefer to wield power over others or submit to it on command, power can have an intoxicating effect on a person's libido.

The same could be said for celebrity. Whether one actively seeks to be in the company of fame and fortune or hopes to bask in its reflected glory, there is an inherent understanding that one either possesses more or less éclat than another person. Things are rarely on an equal footing.

Some people operate under the mistaken belief that, by being near someone who is rich and famous, a star's magical powers of wealth and celebrity will rub off on them. Unfortunately, the only time anything rubs off on them is during masturbatory sessions that involve the eruption of bodily fluids onto an eager sycophant (I tip my hat to Louis Virtel who recently coined the drag name Olympia Bukkakes).

In his 1979 masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim gave his vengeful barber the following lyrics:

"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo
Turning beauty to filth and greed I, too,
Have sailed the world and seen its wonders,
For the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
But there's no place like London!"

Such bitter words could easily be used to describe the audition process or such reality television programs as Survivor, Fear Factor, and The Apprentice. After a while, some people simply accept as a given the necessity of rudeness as a means of getting what they want, making others do what they want, or polishing their expertise at instilling highly unprofessional levels of toxicity into the lives of their victims.

Is it surprising that programs like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or the political platform of the Republican Party approach life from a position of white privilege? I think not. Three recent dramas helped to confirm my feelings.

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Early in one of Joyce Wu's short films at the 2013 CAAMFest, there is a scene in which a film director is trying to coach a group of women who supposedly work in a massage parlor. To make their acting seem more realistic, he encourages them to "try screaming in Asian."

Later, Wu's protagonist, Sophie, enters an audition room and extends her hand toward one of the casting agents in a gesture of goodwill. "I don't shake hands," replies the woman. In the following clip, Wu explains some of the reasons she hopes to transform Screaming in Asian from a bitter comedy short into a full-length feature.

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Gregory Bonsignore and John Petaja try to demonstrate the challenges facing three brown men (played by Parvesh Cheena, Rizwan Manji, and Guru Singh) who try to sell their funny creative ideas to a video producer in their dark and sarcastic short entitled ".....Or Die." Most of the comedy takes place in a conference room as they try to pitch story ideas to a white producer who can only envision a script in which they are portraying taxi drivers or terrorists.

Bryan Callen is a clueless producer in "...Or Die."

It's no surprise that this 14-minute short is based on true experiences. However, I was delighted to see the talented Bryan Callen (who many remember for his role on MADtv in Cabana Chat with Dixie Wetsworth) as the producer of a YouTube video series desperate for a multicultural comedy hit that could go viral. Here are some favorite clips of Callen as an idiotic pool boy.

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Backstage dramas are usually filled with gossip and backstabbing. During the 1990s, two of my guilty pleasures were a cable show called Beggars and Choosers (which took place in the executive offices of a fictional television network) and 1994's Swimming With Sharks, which stars Kevin Spacey as a supremely arrogant Hollywood executive and Frank Whaley as the executive assistant who exacts a terrifying revenge for Buddy Ackerman's sadistic behavior.

After being employed for several years by The Weinstein Company, Leslye Headland wrote a bitter, angry one-act play about the executive assistants and glorified go-fers whose stressed-out lives are dominated by insufferable bosses like Harvey Weinstein. As she recalls, "When I saw The Devil Wears Prada, I was still an assistant. Everyone in the theater was laughing while I was having a panic attack."

While not specific to the entertainment industry, Headland's [never seen onstage] demon is modeled after such notoriously selfish and demanding bosses as Donald Trump and Anna Wintour.

Poster art for Assistance

First produced off-Broadway in 2008, Assistance is currently being developed for NBC as a pilot. OpenTab's shrill and highly stressful production introduces audiences to six executive assistants whose souls are being shredded and lives destroyed as they try to cater to the irrational whims and mercurial demands of the boss from hell. As directed by Ben Euphrat, Daniel's subordinates/slaves include

  • Vince (Daniel Bakken), the lucky man who, at the beginning of the play, is leaving Daniel's sphere of influence and being promoted to a job across the hall.
  • Nick (Tristan Rholl), an ass-kissing office worker with low self esteem who has become quite skilled at manipulating people to meet his boss's needs.
  • Nora (Melissa Keith), a young woman who has idolized Daniel for years and dreamed of working for him. After starting off in a state of shock and awe, she is transformed into the kind of emotional monster for whom everything is a matter of life or death.
  • Heather (Tiffany Heggebo), a young woman who took a job working for Daniel in part because she thought it would make her parents happy.
  • Jenny (Michelle Drexler), a young British woman for whom doing Daniel's bidding is nothing more than a job.
  • Justin (Nathan Tucker), the pathetic intern who got a promotion, is prone to hysterics, suffered an injury when Daniel slammed a car door on his foot, and has evolved into an evil control freak.

Throughout Headland's 90-minute play, phones keep ringing at an ear-shattering volume, the actors keep screaming while talking over each other's voices into their headsets, and Euphrat builds the kind of war-room atmosphere that would appeal to people who like the sound of chalk scratching on a blackboard, enjoy suffering through the pain of an infected root canal, and loved Jeremy Piven's angry meltdowns on Entourage. As Headland sees things:

"Daniel [the boss] wasn't always Daniel. He must have assisted somebody, learned that behavior from someone, or been put in some sort of situation that developed that idea. There's a reason there's a line in the beginning where Vince says, 'I hate girls, they're so stressful.' What I meant by that joke, and what I also mean by showing Nora's collapse under the stress of the job, is that sometimes women are just so much more emotionally in tune to what's going on."

I can't for the life of me understand why someone would have brought two 10-year-olds to the performance I attended (the kids sat in front of me and didn't seem to mind the nonstop screaming and cursing). And I tip my hat to the actors for not losing their concentration when, during an exceptionally tense moment, a woman rose from the audience and crossed the stage en route to the ladies' room.

Assistance asks audiences to not just think about why people are willing to compromise their sanity in order to be near someone the public perceives to be wildly successful but why such people keep coming back for more and more abuse. Perhaps their behavior is best summed up by Hysterium, the beloved "slave of slaves" in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum who boasts that "I live to grovel."

The following clip offers a glimpse into some of Daniel's battered assistants before the going gets tough and the shit hits the fan:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape