Into a drab-gray, Manhattan office of half-walled cubicles and several desks within touching range of each other drag in one-by-one, three editorial assistants with the morning already half over. Immediately begins a barrage of back-and-forth banter that includes arrow-sharp insults full of cynicism; biting gossip about colleagues not within earshot; and soap-box diatribes about their stalled careers, their Baby Boomer bosses, and a 2010s magazine industry that can feel “like we on the fricking Titanic.” Mostly blocking out the three with his super Bose headphones is the current intern, a Harvard student whom they only turn to when one of them wants him to go buy her a coconut water.
In his 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist Gloria now in production at American Conservatory Theater, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins creates a high-powered magazine’s work environment that sizzles and snaps in satire as a self-centered generation finds itself caught in the throes of the collapsing industry of traditional publishing. Amongst the sardonic jabs and holier-than-thou proclamations, there is a complex combination of panic, disgust, and resignation in this world where their Ivy League degrees are of little worth as unknown bloggers and Tweeters take over.
Dean (Jeremy Kahn) wanders in with his third hangover of the week and plops his feet on his desk, beginning a rant about “running some kind of summer camp” for interns, even as intern Miles (Jared Corbin) sits within inches of him largely ignoring while diligently working and listening to his music. As a perpetual, late-twenty-something networker, Dean clearly is enacting a plan of escape from this seemingly dead-end job through searching for some new route during one of his alcohol-filled evenings, like the house-warming party he attended the night before that all his colleagues avoided like the plague. Ani (Martha Brigham) is much more reserved and quieter in her digs and cuts as she smirks silently watching Dean jump around furiously with arms waving. She lets Dean know that there was no way she was going to fellow-worker, Gloria’s, party whom she brands as “an emotional terrorist.”
But the real excitement begins when Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) – with arms full of the morning’s shopping spree and no obvious care for how late she is – enters in her six-inch stilettos and begins gunning down Dean with bullets galore of hilarious (to us, not to him) put-downs. He of course returns in kind to what becomes a modern-office version of an OK Corral shoot-out. So loud are that that several times head fact-checker, Lorin (Matt Monaco) runs in from the next office begging for less 4-letter bullets being fired in booming voices, finally returning himself totally to lose all his own composure as he nearly breaks down complaining about his own washed-up career at the age of thirty-seven, wishing for his own demise rather than the pressure of a job he hates.
Punctuating all this fast-paced boom-boom-boom between office workers – all of whom so far are doing absolutely no work – comes occasional pauses of all action and speech whenever Gloria suddenly meanders into the room. Lauren English brilliantly and blandly portrays the brunt of her colleagues’ earlier, snarky remarks as in her slouchy jacket and untucked, oversized shirt she enters; looks blankly at the now-silent, starring others; cocks her head curiously, and finally says, “I like to think I’m here just to see what happens.”
Eric Ting hardly lets us catch our breath during the ping and pow of this highly comedic, opening act. Looking back, one can recall clues that something unexpected and horrendous is about to happen – clues in descriptions of past events, in certain facial expressions, and certainly in dialogue in innocent-enough phrases like Miles’ exposé of the fast-changing world around them: “Everything this exact moment tomorrow could be all different.” But no one on stage or in the audience could have predicted what does occur as Act One concludes, an event life-changing, never to be forgotten by anyone present.
Act Two of “Gloria” is certainly not devoid of humor and satire, but now all has turned much darker as we visit two time periods: eight months later and two years later. Characters we have already met, some that were present that morning that we did not meet, and altogether new characters are now all portrayed by this same cast, with all but Matt Monaco in his sole role as Lorin donning the persona of two or three total people. For a group of writers, the event that occurs – to avoid a spoiler, do not read the audience warning sign when entering the theatre – becomes rich fodder for possible memoirs, with New York publishers and even Hollywood’s TV producers lining up to bid for the juiciest, most emotion-laden take of someone that was there. And while Branden Jacobs-Jenkins lets us see the irony and the personal greed and glory-seeking of the event’s aftermath, we are also exposed in gut-wrenching performances by Jeremy Kahn and Matt Monaco of the near-debilitating, PTSD-type scars a sudden, traumatic event can leave on people like party-boy Dean and burned-out Lorin.
Lauren English returns as an editor whose voice behind a closed office door we hear the first half but whom we never actually meet. In yet a further example of her stellar acting abilities – a characteristic shared by this entire ensemble of six – her Nan shops to a Hollywood studio a book about being a victim, raising powerful questions for us as audience to contemplate on ‘who gets to tell a victim’s story’ and ‘who has legitimate claim to take on the title, victim.’
Martha Brigham takes on a new role as Callie, an office worker in the TV producers’ offices, bringing almost cheerleader motions and energy to a twenty-something still in her teens who becomes so hyped just to be near someone ‘who was there.’ Jared Corbin goes from a friendly intern to a Starbucks employee with a powerful punch to a TV studio executive seeing dollar signs in turning supposed first-hand accounts into hopeful, small-screen megahits.
Lawrence E. Moten III has created office scenes that speak volumes for the unease and restlessness of Act One’s cubical-dwelling assistants and the slick but near-silly attitudes of the Hollywood set of late Act Two. In between, a scene at a New York Starbucks emerges that caused gasps as well as chuckles from an appreciative audience. Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting accentuates the gray insipidness of the opening office scene, the slick but sterile look of the Hollywood office, and the spotlighted individuals themselves in the generic Starbucks scene. Christine Crook’s costumes become vivid character descriptions where without any dialogue, one can begin to list many of the probable mannerisms, biases, and emotional qualities of those depicted. Finally, the sound design of Madeline Oldham and the movement coaching of Danyon Davis play major roles in creating a turning point event that is so real as to send shudders down one’s spine.
After seeing this superbly acted, directed, and produced ACT production, the real power of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria crystalizes in the next day’s further contemplation and discussion. Questions aplenty arise about the wide range of positive and negative impacts of the Internet on industries, relationships, motivations, and opportunities as well as about the aftermath of unexpected events of sudden trauma, their long-lasting effects on individuals, and the definition of ‘victim’ as well as the subsequent fascination with ‘victims.’ To be thoroughly entertained while also totally challenged is the guaranteed reward for experiencing the emotionally charged Gloria.
Rating: 5 E
Gloria closed March 11, 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Photos by Kevin Berne