by John Stoltenberg
Count on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to leave you whiplashed and shell-shocked. He hits nerve after nerve then goes for the jugular. Whatever he writes, see it.
Woolly’s previous productions of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays Appropriate and An Octoroon were hilarious and lacerating inquisitions into American racism. Appropriate did it with a family of all-white characters. An Octoroon did it with characters of color in white, red, and black greasepaint. Jacobs-Jenkins followed with Gloria, just opened at Woolly in a stunning production of a knockout play. Gloria has a multi-raced cast of characters but really isn’t about race. Or rather, it’s about not being about race, since it’s set in one of those rarefied workplaces, the office of an urbane magazine, where the white-liberal presumption is that race is irrelevant. You’re just either a hotshot or not.
Most of Act One plays like the live taping of a television sitcom in front of a studio audience. Millennial co-workers bicker and throw shade, make snide jokes behind one another’s backs, slough off doing any real work, distract themselves with office gossip and online ephemera. As crisply directed by Kip Fagan, Jacobs-Jenkins’s precision pacing of the brisk, brittle comedy elicits a crackling laugh track. And the play hits a nerve of anxiety familiar to anyone who can remember starting out in a cutthroat career both ambitious for success and terrified of failure.
See an insightful overview of Gloria in my colleague Ian Thal’s’ review.
Jacobs-Jenkins worked as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker after he got out of college and in Gloria mines that experience for an explosive minefield of tragicomedy. Having myself spent decades in national magazine editorial offices, I enjoyed the script’s depiction of the world of Gloria—the put-upon personalities of the fact-checking and copy-editing departments, editorial assistants in the open bullpen office jockeying for the attention of aloof bosses, everyone’s benign neglect of the intern, who’s left adrift with nothing meaningful to do.
I liked that Jacobs-Jenkins focuses on the office underlings and keeps the upper-echelon editors off stage. And I particularly appreciated the actors’ veracity in their portrayals: the hapless fact checker Lorin (Ahmad Kamal), the frayed copy chief Gloria (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), the eager intern Miles (Justin Weaks), and the chatty editorial assistants Ani (Megan Graves), Dean (Conrad Schott), and Kendra (Eunice Hong). Though exaggerated a tad for comic effect, these characters are all grounded in editorial cred. There are some daffy goings-on, but it’s all in a day’s work. Nothing amiss, nothing ominous, only quick, biting humor.
Which makes what happens just before intermission such a cataclysmic shock.
I gladly abide by Woolly’s wish that this event not be revealed. I did not see it coming nor would I have wanted to. Suffice to say, what happens turns Act Two into a different play.
Fascinatingly, Jacobs-Jenkins now pivots and switches which nerves he hits. The play becomes a commentary on the media maw, particularly the packaging and retailing of what used to be called New Journalism (reportage so flashily first-person it’s mainly about the writer). Three of the characters in Act One now have book projects about what happened. One of the projects never went anywhere but two have been published. And the play now entertains a comic critique of each book’s relative reliability owing to each author’s dubious claim to being an eyewitness. In other words: Fake views.
Since I saw Gloria a few days ago, I have been trying in my mind to patch together Act One and Act Two, to reconcile the content of the two halves, to make a causal case for their connection that would make them seem a meaningful whole. I’ve read various attempts by others to infer such rationales (like one I’d paraphrase as: obsessional ambition leads to media chicanery). But I’ve not come up with a connecting concept that persuades me.
Which has led me to the suspicion that Jacobs-Jenkins may have intended me to grope futilely for an explanation of how Act Two relates to Act One. Because the sort of event that joins them doesn’t really join them at all. It sunders them. It makes no sense, and it rips apart reality.
Damn, that guy can write.
Running time: Two hours, with an intermission.