It’s hard to say much about Gloria. Her former colleague, Lorin, is hard pressed to describe her: “pretty normal,” “maybe a little awkward,” someone who brought her own lunch to work and liked to knit. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play about this mostly unremarkable magazine editor, also called Gloria, is similarly difficult to discuss, at least in a review: the play’s defining moment takes place in the first act and, though it is the only topic of conversation between the characters for the rest of the play, revealing it would be a major spoiler.
One thing that can be said safely about Gloria, is that it is a far cry from An Octoroon, the play that brought this 31-year old playwright to attention last season (an Obie-winning, Soho Rep production that transferred to Theater For A New Audience this past winter). Where An Octoroon – a mordantly funny deconstruction of a 19th century creole romance – had thematic depth and historical breadth, Gloria is a cartoonishly flat close-up on a single focus of interest: the publishing world.
Plenty has already been made of the pitiless numbers game of that whole realm, from Amazon to Murdoch, or its exploitative working conditions (as The Devil Wears Prada did already), to the explosion of confessional fiction and memoirs just to make a buck (Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices comes to mind). So much so that it feels like a rather tired premise when money and ambition are again the ruling themes in Gloria.
The action begins in the Culture department of a New York magazine where barbs (and more) fly with cruel nonchalance, introducing us to a cast of types who will clone themselves into the next wave of TV execs ready to wring the last penny from another gratuitous, tell-all memoir. In between, the utterly despicable characters take a requisite coffee break at Starbucks, where the gloves come off and a few crocodile tears are shed. Gloria could easily be a treatment for a TV series with its line-up of love-to-hate-’em back-stabbers and omg surprises. Gloria could also be the revenge of an unpublished writer taking out his frustrations on the industry that spurned him. Neither scenario applies, however, but if you are looking for anything like a revelation about human nature or anything approaching insight on an already well-caricatured industry, you won’t find it here.
Fortunately, neither melodrama nor reportage is Jacobs-Jenkins’ aim, but he isn’t exactly serving up satire either. Gloria is no more and no less than the sum of its parts: sharp dialogue – made up of plenty of what passes for urbane witticisms these days – a mostly latent commentary on race (where the minorities trying to fight their way up in NYC are on the top of the heap in LA; also a brief rant by the Starbucks barista) and those irredeemable characters. The combination makes for a comedy about all that is wrong with publishing but not much more. The TV production execs and their staff in LA are meant to “look a lot like” the insular tribe of editors and their overworked assistants in NYC, sealing the idea – with double casting to boot – that from coast to coast, everyone is looking for the opportunity to publish their story and get rich.
What they want to profit from is Gloria, and this is the only place where Gloria gets interesting. Who she was can never be known, partly because she never shared with anyone, partly because her self-involved coworkers never cared to ask, but mostly because her actions became breaking news and, once in that black hole of screaming headlines, no sense can ever be wrung from it again. Gloria is at best a perspicacious commentary on our media society, where victims and perpetrators are bandied around in an electronic “conversation” across all spheres of the media, moderated by pundits more interested in personal gain than truth, justice, journalism, literature, or any sort of higher good.
Evan Cabnet directs a fine cast of egotists. Jennifer Kim sets the tone as Kendra, the office “Tiger Daughter” and unapologetically ruthless editorial assistant. She makes nail filings of her more genial co-worker Dean, though Ryan Spahn can be equally strong when Dean shows some unforeseen mettle of his own. The double casting provides ironic flourishes to all of the characters, both victims and villains in turn.
With Hollywood and the NFL, both of which it seems to resemble at times, the publishing world barters in million dollar deals as much as outsized egos, blockbusters as frequently as knock-down blocks. Gloria takes another pot-shot at another morally bankrupt industry, but Jacobs-Jenkins’ bullet deliberately ricochets to hit all of us who can’t take our eyes off the show.