Saturday, July 4, 2015

35 (2015-2016): Review of GLORIA (seen July 3, 2015)

"Not Just Another Day at the Office"

Stars range from 5-1.
With GLORIA, his dark new satire at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, playwright-to-watch Branden Jacobs-Jenkins makes a sharp detour from last season’s highly touted AN OCTOROON, a postmodern examination of American racism set in the 19th century. This time his sociologically attuned laser eyes hone in on 1) the cutthroat world of office politics, as seen in the professional ambitions, rivalries, and work-related frustrations of editorial workers at a leading literary magazine, and 2) the media’s profit-making exploitation of tragic events. Unlike the otherworldly stylization of AN OCTOROON, GLORIA is straightforward realism, with recognizable locales, and smart-assed contemporary dialogue.
From left: Jennifer Kim, Catherine Combs, Kyle Beltran. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In the first act of this two-act, two-hour play, set several years ago, we’re in an office (designed by Takeshi Kata) with four cubicles surrounded by inner offices faced with frosted glass. The editorial assistants, all in their late 20s, are the hungover Dean (Ryan Spahn), a white guy; the self-absorbed Kendra (Jennifer Kim), an Asian woman; and the enthusiastic Ani (Catherine Combs), a white woman (or “anything really,” according to the script). Working alongside them is a young black intern, Miles (Kyle Beltran), earbuds in place, whom the others use mainly as a gofer, but who’s cool with his place in the scheme of things, especially as his internship is nearly up.
From left: Ryan Spahn, Jennifer Kim, Catherine Combs. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The magazine is unnamed but the most likely inspiration is The New Yorker, where Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins once worked. This is a play, not a slice of life, so one needn’t be concerned that no weekly magazine could ever survive with such a bunch of nonstop schmoozers filling their working hours with petty chin wagging, shopping excursions, late arrivals, and Starbucks runs for skim macchiatos with extra foam. While the environment gives the playwright a motive for sounding off on the state of modern magazine publishing, anyone who’s ever worked in a cubicle office, whatever its business, will recognize the kind of atmosphere that can make going to work only slightly more desirable than sticking one’s head in the oven.
Jennifer Kim, Ryan Spahn, Catherine Combs. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
We meet two other people here, and are aware of a third. One’s a harried, 37-year-old fact checker named Lorin (Michael Crane), who works down the hall, is depressed about his career, and keeps showing up to beg the others to pipe down; his office is desperately trying to polish a last-minute profile about a famous pop singer, Sarah Tweed, who just died. (Jennifer, the sourest apple, considers the young staffer asked to write the profile inferior, which arouses a barrage of jealous bitterness so nasty she should have a license to carry a loaded mouth.) The other person introduced is the editor Gloria (Jeanine Serralles), “the office freak,” a disoriented misery who gave an “awful” housewarming party the night before that nobody in the group except Dean had the decency to attend. Unseen is a female editor named Nan, who’s in her office not feeling very well.
Catherine Combs, Jeanine Serralles. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The act is entirely devoted to exposing the work rituals, petty wrangling, and publishing aspirations of the workers. Beyond what they say about their work and each other, the characters are mostly stick figures about whom we learn very little. Still, we’re engaged in their little world of gossipy small talk until—flash, bam, alakazam—something BAD happens and the play moves into different and much darker territory.
Catherine Combs, Michael Crane. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Act two, practically two acts in itself, first takes us to a Starbucks, eight months later, to deal with the aftermath to the bad thing, including the revelation that Dean and Jennifer are writing books about it. This leads to a confrontation about what each might write about the other and culminates in Dean lashing out. In a bit of unconvincing coincidentalism, Nan (Ms. Serralles) shows up as well, eight months pregnant and in the company of Sasha (Ms. Combs), an editor from another publication, who talks her into writing a book of her own, even though she didn’t actually witness the incident itself. By the time the scene ends, Nan’s come so far she’s able to ask: “What do you think I can get?”
Ryan Spahn, Jennifer Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
When, after several minutes, the curtain reopens, several years have passed and we’re in a television production company’s offices in LA (the act one set with minor changes). Lorin, who’s left New York and has just gotten a job here as a temp, encounters Nan, there to see her successful book made into a film. His recollection of the office incident, which he witnessed, differs from hers, since she was hiding in her office when it transpired. Mr. Crane’s drawn-out syllables as he registers his stunned responses are priceless.

In his script, Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins introduces certain characters in act two by saying he or she “looks a lot like” some character already introduced. This allows for double and triple casting that may help keep the show’s budget in line, and also make a metatheatrical point about the interchangeability of personality, but it’s nonetheless a distraction, like the phony ice cubes that accidentally spilled on the floor in the Starbucks scene at the performance I saw. The cubes lay there, without melting, for the entire scene, even though Mr. Beltran’s barista was busy cleaning up the joint.

Fortunately, Evan Cabnet’s direction is smooth, the ensemble (and they definitely meet the definition) is polished, and the writing is filled with lively and often very funny language. While Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s insights into working at a faux-New Yorker may not be what you’ll get from Mary Norris’s recent book about her experiences at the actual magazine, they’re still enough to provide you with one of the better new plays of the young season.
Michael Crane (front), Kyle Beltran. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street, NYC
Through July 18

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