To say that the new play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins starts in one direction and then goes somewhere completely different is an understatement. This latest effort by the 30-year-old author of such acclaimed works as Appropriate, Neighbors and An Octoroon begins as a sharply observed satirical comedy depicting the tensely humorous interactions among a group of ambitious young editorial assistants at a magazine bearing no small resemblance to the New Yorker. A shocking event then occurs at the end of Act I, but it’s less important in and of itself than as a springboard for the playwright to examine the ramifications of our exploitative, media-saturated age.
The play opens light-heartedly enough with the arrival of Dean (Ryan Spahn), hung over from the birthday party the previous night of co-worker Gloria (Jeanine Serralles), and resentful at having been the only officemate to show up. Occupying the adjoining cubicles are the bubbly Ani (Catherine Combs); the haughty Kendra (Jennifer Kim), breezing in late and toting shopping bags that she claims are research for a story; and the eager college intern Miles (Kyle Beltran), whose main duty seems to be going on vending machine runs.
The playwright, who indeed once toiled at the New Yorker before beginning his writing career, keenly depicts the emotional dynamics among the group, including the women teasing Dean about his secret book proposal, their shock at the overdose death of a beloved young female pop star, and the intern, who’s about to go back to college, timidly requesting a farewell audience with their unseen boss Nan. The group’s often raucous conversation is periodically interrupted by Gloria, who seems dazed and sullen, and Lorin (Michael Crane), a 37-year-old fact-checker who keeps popping in to complain about the noise and ultimately has a mini-breakdown over the sorry state of his career.
Their routine workday is then upended by a violent event that, sadly, does not feel out of the realm of possibility. And that’s when the play really becomes interesting.
In Act II the scene has shifted to eight months later in a Starbucks, depicting the meeting between a still clearly traumatized Dean and Kendra, both of whom have snared book deals to write about the horrific event. When he asks her to sign a non-disclosure agreement giving him approval of her book’s portrayal of him, things turn ugly, with Dean angrily slapping her. After they both leave, Dean returns to retrieve his manuscript and runs into his former boss Nan (Serralles), now heavily pregnant and meeting with old friend Sasha (Combs), an editor at a publishing house. Under Sasha’s prodding, Nan recounts her version of the story.
Read More ‘Preludes’: Theater Review
The action then fast-forwards several years to a Los Angeles production company where Lorin arrives for a temp job, only to discover that Nan is about to show up for a meeting to discuss the impending film inspired by the event. Since she didn’t actually witness the action, having been hiding under her desk in her locked office, he considers her less than qualified on the subject.
The complicated action is expertly staged by Evan Cabnet, who also elicits superb performances from the ensemble. The standout is Crane, whose relatively mature Lorin represents the sole voice of reason.
As usual, the playwright handles his serious themes in a thoughtful, provocative manner, displaying his penchant for meta-theatricality with the startling device of having nearly all of the performers take on multiple roles that playfully comment on the others. If at times Jacobs-Jenkins becomes a little heavy-handed and explicit in his treatment, the play nonetheless emerges as a trenchant commentary on the way in which personal tragedies merely serve as grist for the ever-ravenous media machine.
A rare example of a contemporary play that keeps us constantly guessing where it’s headed, Gloria is a work not to be easily forgotten.
Cast: Catherine Combs, Kyle Beltran, Ryan Spahn, Jennifer Kim, Jeanine Serralles, Michael Crane
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Evan Cabnet
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: Ilona Somogyl
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Sound designer: Matt Tierney
Presented by the Vineyard Theatre