Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Feb. 19
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Gloria,” a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist, morphs from a scathing satire of office politics into a complicated and disturbing look at the aftermath of a traumatic event. Smoothly directed by Evan Cabnet, the play made its Off-Broadway debut at the Vineyard Theater in 2015, and the Goodman Theater production is a direct import with the talented cast intact.
Those writing about the show have been asked to “refrain from including revealing aspects of the plot,” but the evening opens in the New York offices of a once prestigious yet economically struggling magazine not unlike “The New Yorker,” where the playwright once worked. We are among the cubicle-dwelling millennial assistants in the cultural department, an ambitious, competitive trio who seem to get little work done, resent their underpaid and under-appreciated positions, mock their older bosses, and enjoy sending the affable African American intern, Miles (Kyle Beltran), on trivial errands.
The soul-sucking environment has really gotten to Dean (Ryan Spahn), who is approaching thirty and feels stuck in a go-nowhere job—at the beck and call of his unseen, hard-drinking editor, Nan—for a print publication in the age of internet “click” journalism. A self-doubter who is secretly penning a memoir called “Zine Dreams,” he also has the distinction of being the only one who attended the apartment-warming party of Gloria, a longtime copy editor considered the office oddball.
Dean is frequently at odds with shrill-voiced Kendra (Jennifer Kim), the rich, Harvard-educated Asian American “tigress” whose the most mean-spirited, vicious, and back-biting one of them all. A narcissistic know-it-all determined to claw her way to the top, she nonetheless is always late to work and pretty much does as she pleases. Newcomer Ani (Catherine Combs) comes across as the nice one and tries to mediate between Dean and Kendra, though she may have a hidden agenda.
Most of the first act consists of frequently biting shop talk, as Dean describes Gloria’s sad party and trades put-downs with Kendra, interrupted by summonses into Nan’s office. As the volume of the arguments escalates, frazzled head copy editor Lorin (Michael Crane) pops in from down the hall, begging for quiet because his department has been tasked with quickly readying a profile of a pop singer who has unexpectedly died of an overdose. At 37, he’s acutely conscious of limitations and delivers a scorching, moving monologue on the subject. Harried-looking Gloria (Jeanine Serralies) also pops in a couple of times, looking for Dean. And the dead pop star is a source of conversation, including musings on why celebrities in particular become more interesting after they’ve died.
This apparently normal day is interrupted by a shocking incident, and in Act 2 we see its effects both on those who were directly involved and those who weren’t. This raises provocative questions about exploiting a tragedy for personal gain, as well as about who is entitled to tell the story. It also reminded me of the game of telephone: The further we get from the source, the more what actually happened fades into the background. Put another way, as those who see an opportunity are ready to capitalize on it by turning a memoir into a television series, we’re definitely in a Trumpian world of “alternative facts.”
More unsettling still: Although the characters claim to be profoundly changed by their experience, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. The may give lip service to their transformation, but they soon emerge as being just like they were before, if not more so.
While the first act of “Gloria” allows Jacobs-Jenkins to show off his smart writing and get a lot of knowing laughs (and other reactions), there are lots of plays about dysfunctional offices. I find the second act more interesting, because it begins to explore more complex ideas. It’s also a boon for several actors who play more than one role brilliantly and, without giving anything away, the doubling is very savvy.
One final thing: If you ever thought of working in a New York magazine office as an exciting, glamorous career, “Gloria” will make you think again. That time is long past, if it ever existed at all.