by Loren Noveck · June 16, 2015
Ryan Spahn, Jennifer Kim, Catherine Combs | Carol Rosegg
Gloria, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, spends its first hour as a very particular type of contemporary play: polished to an impenetrable gloss, minutely realistic (on Takeshi Kata’s set) down to its frosted glass office doors and computer monitors and Starbucks cups, full of ambitious young people who are cleverly self-reflexive in their commentary on life in modern NYC. It would be hard to recognize it as the work of the same writer as this season’s untidy, ambitious, stylized, sprawling An Octoroon. But the two pieces share a preoccupation with story, a fixation on making sense of the narratives we weave about our lives, and a fierce technical intelligence, a way of turning structure into story and vice versa. If the preoccupations of An Octoroon were national and historical, Gloria’s are more local, more personal: about the way that events in which we participate or which we witness never exactly belong to anyone, and are never quite the same for everyone within them—but the more public they become, the more ownership of those stories will become contested and claimed.
Gloria begins on a day just like any other day at the office of a news-and-culture weekly magazine in New York: the intern, Miles, is the first person to show up, then the rest of the assistants trickle in and take their places in their cube farm. All of them are scheming about how to get out of the assistants' ghetto. Ani, the least ambitious, is the closest to on-time; Dean is late and seriously hungover; Kendra is later still and has passed off a sample sale visit as work-related (she’s writing a shopping piece on spec). The grumpy guy from fact-checking, Lorin, keeps asking them to keep their voices down. Kendra goes on a coffee run after being there about 20 minutes. Ani and Kendra spy a book proposal on Dean's desk and mock him about his hopes of writing a memoir. No one is happy to be there, except maybe the mellow Ani—the intern is bored, Dean has the aforementioned hangover, Kendra is utterly frustrated with her job and spends most of her time taunting Dean. And, in possibly the only piece of news that’s unique to this particular day, Dean is mad at Ani because she stood him up the night before—one of their coworkers, the titular Gloria, who works in the copy department, threw a housewarming party and nobody, except Dean and a few drop-ins, showed up.
Jacobs-Jenkins and director Evan Cabnet (and the entire cast) understand the immersive rhythms of office work, and subtly satirize them without condescension; we've all worked day jobs, and we all get absorbed into the internal politics and dramas and spend too much time trying to figure how not to let our jobs usurp our lives...except when we need our jobs to stand in for our lives. The characters are office archetypes, albeit affectionately drawn ones—every office has a Gloria (Jeanine Serralles, so twitchy she can’t make eye contact with another person), a socially awkward worker bee who's been in her position too long to either advance or be fired. Every office has a Lorin (Michael Crane, turning passive aggression into a science until he just can’t take it anymore), an anxiety-ridden grump who lashes out at underlings because he's too timid to have confrontations with bosses; an ambitious but not hardworking Kendra (Jennifer Kim, sharp-tongued but also sharp-eyed about what’s really going on) who puts more effort into analyzing why she can’t get ahead than into her job; an Ani (Catherine Combs, intentionally pleasant) who drifts through while never quite making up her mind to make this job her career; a Dean (Ryan Spahn, mixing surly and charming) who can’t seem to find his path out of being an assistant; an intern more dedicated than anyone else in the office (Kyle Beltran, charmingly unaware of his own naivete).
So it's a perfectly mundane day at the office, with perhaps a few more soapboxes climbed upon than normal. (Kendra gets in a great rant about how Baby Boomers are ruining the publishing and media industries for the rest of us; Lorin has a major meltdown over an upcoming profile of a recently deceased pop star.) It's an ordinary day—one that verges on the point of boring the audience, till Gloria threatens to turn into a play that seems to exist only to show off its keen powers of observation, the polished insights of its characters about the state of contemporary media and a what-has-New-York-become lament—until it isn't.
And the rest of the play spins out into about how we take ownership of those moments when our private lives shade into being public events: we as individuals—polishing and retelling our stories or suppressing them; clinging to those who shared them or stepping away as far and as fast as we can; joining forces and stories to create shared memories or walling off and contradicting our versions from those around us—and we as a culture—cannibalizing them for media, turning news into books into movies into TV until the refractions have become more real than the reality, and until we can't be anything other than the roles we played. We are our own archetypes, and as the arrow of time moves one way—eight months, then two years, past the moment of Act 1—the scope of the story moves the other, compressing down to a nugget. Jacobs-Jenkins has a gift for capturing both style and, for lack of a better word, the semiotics of that style—he’s making theater, with a grace that makes it look like the easiest thing in the world, and deconstructing it simultaneously.
There’s a moment when one of the characters recalls being told a story—something that actually happened to her, but had previously been told to the storyteller by someone else as a practiced, polished anecdote of the “good old days.” She has a brief moment of wonder at having her own memory presented back to her as someone else’s secondhand anecdote—and there, somehow, lies the crux of the play.