If you’ve ever worked at a job in which you were underpaid to have your skills and talents demoralizingly underutilized, then the magazine publishing office in which the first act of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play Gloria takes place may be both painfully and hilariously familiar to you. It’s the kind of place that recruits smart young idealistic college grads dreaming of glamorous jobs in publishing, only to plop them in a cubicle and task them with answering the phone, restocking the printer with paper, and scheduling their bosses’ lunch dates.
More specifically, the scene is a group office (cannily designed by Katy Fetrow) staffed by three editorial assistants – Dean (Max Pavel), Kendra (Sami Ma), and Ani (Moira Quigley) – who occupy the bottom rung of the office hierarchy along with a college-aged intern, Miles (Dylan T. Jackson), whom the three assistants freely boss around because he’s the only person below them on the pecking order. As Miles has figured out over his six weeks with the magazine, everyone in this toxic environment is deeply unhappy: Dean is a failed memoirist with a budding alcohol addiction; the nakedly ambitious Kendra bitterly resents having been assigned to an editor who won’t give her any writing assignments; and Ani is drifting aimlessly in a job she seems to have fallen into by accident (she majored in neuroscience).
None of these three seem to have much actual work to do, which is a big part of the problem; instead, they spend most of their time scrabbling for status within the office hierarchy by sabotaging each other and engaging in verbal and psychological warfare. They are joined in their misery by Lorin (Ricardo Vila-Roger), the almost-40-year-old “head fact checker” who works down the hall and who declares, in a moment of existential despair, that working for this magazine “just sucks your soul out of you and leaves you with your dreams gone,” and by the sad-sack introverted and socially-awkward Gloria (Erika Cuenca), a fifteen-year veteran with the firm who works in “copy” (whatever that is) and who, the evening before, had thrown a big and expensively catered housewarming party for herself – to which noone in the office except Dean came.
It’s the kind of place where, as that saying goes about academe, the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low.
Except when suddenly they’re not.
Dear Reader, forgive me a small digression. I’m not going to spoil the most unexpected moment in this play by giving away what happens, and if you are someone who would prefer to experience the surprise that the playwright has prepared for you, then for the love of all that is holy, when you receive the email that Hatch Arts Collective will send you with information about how to find the performance space in the cavernous and user-unfriendly Nova Place, DO NOT scroll down to the end, as I (unfortunately) did, and read the “sensitive content” warning. I’m here to assure you that you’ll be fine without that warning – and that you’ll have a superior experience of the play for having ignored it.
Suffice it to say that these office workers are subjected to a traumatizing event. The second act of the play opens a few months later, when the characters are coping, in the only way they seem to know how, with the aftereffects of that trauma: that is, they are writing about it and trying to make a profit off of it, some more successfully than others. Where the first act is (mostly) a brilliant comic skewer of office politics, the second is a cynical dissection of the way the media industry churns tragedy into profit and the way victims of trauma can be revictimized through the stories that do (and don’t) catch hold in the public imagination.
You might guess from my description that it kind of feels like there are two plays here, which is a challenge director Adil Mansoor addresses through both staging choices and sound cues (by Eben Hoffer) that “ghost” the first act into the second, and thereby not only tie the two halves together, but also theatricalize the psychological chaos with which the characters must cope. Mansoor introduces what is, in essence, a new theatrical vocabulary partway into the second act as a signal that everything has changed and that the world has shifted in strange and unpredictable ways around the characters. It’s a bold and laudable directorial choice, but in several moments it’s either distracting (as when the scene changes behind Nan (Erika Cuenca) as she describes her experience to her fellow publishing exec Sasha (Moira Quigley)) or confounding (as with the difficult-to-parse final sound cue), rather than evocative.
Mansoor has nevertheless directed with a sure hand and coaxed marvelous performances from his ensemble. Ma is sharp and wickedly funny as Kendra, the “tiger daughter” who spends most of the first act deftly and acerbically dissecting the flaws and foibles of her co-workers. Pavel – who is right now ranking among my favorite local actors – brings an edgy sensitivity to his portrayal of Dean, the character who has the biggest emotional journey in the play, and a pitchperfect, laidback-but-patronizing irritability to his characterization of the IT dude in the final scene of the play. Cuenca steps into new territory in her portrayal of the social outcast Gloria in the first act and is satisfyingly ice-queen-y as Nan in the second. Vila-Roger lands the play’s emotional punch in the final scene, as we see his character quietly and gently trying to “figure out how to be” after a few years in an emotional wilderness. Quigley and Jackson each play multiple characters with clear and precisely observed differentiation. Quigley shifts agilely from the youngish, unperturbable Ani to the dismissively confident, at-the-top-of-her-game publishing exec Sasha to the very young and emotionally labile TV studio assistant Callie. Jackson’s performance – as the confident but soft spoken intern Miles in the first act, the chatty and politically woke barista Shawn in the second scene, and the newly crowned master of mediatainment Rashaad in the third – may be the most protean of all, and he sells the moment in which Miles realizes what’s happening in the first act with unforgettable clarity.
Gloria isn’t a perfect play, but the Hatch Arts Collective production is commendable, with professional-level production values and ensemble work that rival any of the larger and (presumably) much better-funded theatrical enterprises in town. The space, a repurposed storefront, is transformed not only by Fetrow’s mobile set and clever special effects but also by John A. Mitchell’s lighting design, which helps pull the play into a psychological space at key moments in the second act. Alexis Carrie’s costume designs key exquisitely to the characters, establishing subtle but precise distinctions between them on the multiple axes of gender, race, age, and social status, and Eben Hoffer’s sound design brings both the external and internal trauma of the play to vivid life.