Gloria Review: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Play Of Warped Ambition and Trauma

Gloria1KimandSpahnIs it the deadening office atmosphere, or is it their own ambition, that have warped most of the cubicle workers who have artistic aspirations in “Gloria,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ shocking drama at the Vineyard Theater?

The playwright of Neighbors, Appropriate and An Octoroon, prompts some disturbing questions as he takes us into new territory, with a play that is set during its first act in the midtown corporate offices of an unnamed national magazine. It doesn’t take long for us to learn that almost all the employees are miserable – which is to say, either unhappy, or of wretched character, or both.

The one exception is Miles (Kyle Beltran, who was so great in Fortress of Solitude) who is an intern just for six weeks. This is long enough to doubt he wants to go into publishing: “It seems like you guys have it pretty hard. Everyone here’s so miserable..”

That’s for sure. Somewhat typical is the outburst by Lorin (Michael Crane), a 37-year-old fact checker: “I was supposed to be a lawyer. Someone shoot me.”

Most of the characters want to be writers and/or editors, and they feel frustrated that their careers are not more advanced. Dean (Ryan Spahn), has worked for the magazine for five years, and is still just an editorial assistant. He is a heavy drinker and a heavier networker, which is why he routinely shows up at the office late. This particular day, he’s late because he spent the evening drinking too much at a housewarming party given by Gloria (Jeanine Sorralles), who’s been with the magazine for 15 years and has never been promoted. Dean was one of the only one of her co-workers to show up.

“Gloria is the office freak and no one wants to hang with the office freak outside of the office,” observes Kendra (Jennifer Kim), who has an unkind word to say about everybody, especially Dean. For his part, Dean accuses Kendra of doing no work – showing up late, going for frequent coffee runs, going shopping. Their mutual antagonism seems to drive the main action of “Gloria,” until….

Critics have been asked not to reveal “aspects of the play” – which is vague but surely means what happens at the end of Act 1. This makes it tough to offer the full flavor of “Gloria,” since it’s in reaction to these traumatic events that the play darkens and deepens, providing more illumination into the characters, and raising some intriguing questions, such as the ugliness of artistic ambition, the ways we individually and as a society process trauma, the exploitation and corruption inherent in our commercial culture. There is even a question the play raises that touches on the subject of race and identity, although very much more obliquely than in his previous work: Who qualifies as the teller of an important story?

Director Evan Cabnet has assembled a first-rate six-member cast, most of whom play multiple parts. The characters don’t change in the second act so much as they reveal themselves more fully. The conflict between Dean and Kendra intensifies, only this time it’s in a different context. It isn’t pretty.

I searched for evidence in the playwright’s biography of an experience that could have informed “Gloria,” and found it quickly in a recent profile: “Jacobs-Jenkins spent nearly three years working in the fiction department at The New Yorker.” This seems clearly the work of an unhappy alumnus. Does it smell of revenge, or is its purpose to make larger points? Probably both.
Would it have been produced without the bombshell that I can’t talk about? Probably not. And that’s ironic, considering the questions  that “Gloria” forces us to consider.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

Vineyard Theater
Written by Branden Jacob-Jenkins
Directed by Evan Cabnet
Scenic design by Takeshi Kata, costume design by Mona Somogy, lighting by Matt Frey, sound by Matt Tierney, fight choreography by J. David Brimmer

Cast: Kyle Beltran,Catherine Combs, Michael Crane, Jennifer Kim, Jeanine Serralles, Ryan Spahn
Tickets: $79
Gloria is set to run through July 3rd. Update: Extended through July 18, 2015.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

2 thoughts on “Gloria Review: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Play Of Warped Ambition and Trauma

  1. This is my first Jacobs-Jenkins play. I wanted to see what all the praise was about. The recycled theater of New York needs new voices and different perspectives that reflect the times. But after the first 10 minutes, I thought about what George S. Kaufman said about satire, that it closes on Saturday night. Gloria has a clever structure, a great coup ‘d theatre at the end of Act I. But there are no really developed characters to care about and no real humor(bitching and whining become tedious really fast). This leaves the comedy/drama at a loss. If it wasn’t for a terrific production, it would have been a near snooze-fest. But I was really disappointed in the race issue he raised. All the Whites/Asians are pictured as losers and the 2 African American characters are pictured as winners. Why he did this I don’t know. He let the issue sit there. It seemed unnecessary. It makes you wonder what the play is really about.

    1. Your last observation is so far from the factual reality of this play that it makes me wonder whether it’s some kind of stealth racist comment.
      First of all, there are three African-American characters in the play, not two — the intern Miles, the Starbucks barista Shawn, and the executive Rashaad (all portrayed by Kyle Beltran.)
      I’m not sure how you can call all three “winners” — I won’t spoil the situation with the intern, but he’s only been there six weeks; Shawn works in a coffee franchise store; Rashaad is newly promoted.
      And I don’t know how you can call all the non-black characters losers (at least not by any common-sense definition.) How is Nan (Jeanine Serralles) a “loser,” other than perhaps morally? Jenna (portrayed by Jennifer Kim) is an executive exactly like Rashaad — so if he’s a winner, so is she.
      The previous plays I’ve seen by Jacobs-Jenkins directly deal with race. As I write in my review, this one touches on the issue of identity if at all very much more obliquely — provoking us to consider the question: Who qualifies as the teller of an important story?

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