When Gloria, a Pulitzer Prize-finalist play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins currently in its west coast premiere at The Echo Theater Company, begins, it seems like a modern workplace comedy. We meet four 20-somethings, three editorial assistants and an intern, who are dragging their way through another workday at a magazine in New York, dealing with ridiculous demands from their bosses and brainstorming escape plans from what they are all beginning to fear are dead-end jobs. But when a tragedy happens, both the play and the characters’ lives face an abrupt tonal shift, laying the groundwork for a story that is actually about the effects of trauma and the various ways the ruthless media industry capitalizes on catastrophe.
While the assistants share similar goals, they approach their jobs in different ways. Kendra (Jenny Soo) takes advantage of her boss working from home and spends the morning shopping sample sales, hoping for good fodder for her fashion blog and Twitter account. She spends far more time gossiping, complaining, and running to Starbucks than actually working. Ani (Alana Dietze) is the newest of the bunch, and takes the stresses of assistant life in stride, seeming to genuinely not mind her job, which her coworkers attribute to the fact that she has “marketable skills,” or a degree in math and science she can always fall back on. Miles (Devere Rogers) is an intern from Harvard who only wound up at the magazine because a professor thought he might enjoy it, but as he nears the end of his internship he remains undecided regarding what he may want to do after school, longing for something truly exciting and stimulating—those who buy into this stereotype might roll their eyes and call him a “typical millennial.” Dean (Michael Sturgis) is constantly running himself ragged in attempts to network his way to the top, frustrated that he is about to turn 30 and has been on his current desk for five years. On the morning in question, he comes to work hungover and annoyed he was the only person from editorial—and one of the only people from the entire magazine—to attend a party thrown by Gloria (Jessica Goldapple), the “office freak.”
Gloria is certainly a bit sad and off-putting—while she has worked in the office for many years, few feel like they know her and fewer still want to spend any time with her. She is far from the only person who seems psychologically affected by the fast-paced, cutthroat, sometimes toxic work environment. Lorin (Steven Strobel) is a fact-checker always on the brink of pulling his hair out over the latest work inconvenience, and he is constantly annoyed by how noisy the editorial assistants are. Meanwhile, the editors sit in their offices, isolated and unattainable, relying on their assistants to do everything from scheduling their meetings to disposing of their vomit (yes, really). Jacobs-Jenkins himself worked as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker and the authenticity shines through in every minute interaction between his characters.
This show is difficult to discuss without delving into the realm of serious plot spoilers, although many will likely guess the twist correctly based on the title, the vague description of the story, and the sign displayed as you enter the theater warning of strong violence. Personally, I was initially disappointed to have successfully predicted the turn of events, considering that similar stories have been popping up on stage a lot lately, which is perhaps inevitable in this day and age. But act two, which takes place in the aftermath and requires many of the actors to play different characters than they played in act one, went to deep, nuanced, emotional places and found a new and interesting angle from which to examine an event that in and of itself did not feel new or surprising.
Directed by Chris Fields, the double casting that takes place in act two likely began as a practical choice by the playwright to keep the number of cast members low, but he mostly succeeded in making it a powerful thematic choice as well. Aside from a few speeches that feel overly exposition-heavy as the world is being established in act one, Jacobs-Jenkins’s writing is quite subtle and smart, and a few tiny reveals slipped into the dialogue in act two are the moments you will be left thinking about long after the play has ended. The ensemble works well together, creating a whole that is greater than any one individual performance, although Rogers and Dietze do a particularly good job differentiating the multiple characters they play. None of the technical elements particularly stand out, and the sound design is a bit perplexing, failing to capture the atmosphere of an office in a cohesive way. But this is a play where the words and emotions are strong enough that it does not need to rely on much else. Act two raises an interesting question—who “deserves” to profit from a tragedy? Does anyone? One of the most heartbreaking takeaways is that those who benefit the most from tragic events are often not those who have perhaps most earned the right to—if there even is such a thing.
Gloria runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through October 21st. The running time is two hours, including one intermission. Performances are Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets for Monday performances are $20 in advance, or pay-what-you-can at the door, subject to availability. Tickets for all other performances are $34 and can be purchased here.