As at any workplace, an office that publishes newspapers or magazines has employees of a wide range of ambition levels—and probably with a greater sense of urgency and/or desperation in the past decade as print publications have struggled to adapt to a culture changing faster than they can. In his 2015 play Gloria, given a regional premiere by Dallas Theater Center in the sixth-floor Studio Theater at the Wyly Theatre, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins paints these writers and editors at a New York fashion/culture magazine with biting satire.
It’s almost as if he has spent time with writers.
In this office, we meet Dean (Drew Wall), the “longest living assistant on editor’s row” who’s approaching 30 and already working on a memoir; pretty and crazy-smart cubicle-mate Ani (Grace Montie); caustic alpha female Kendra (Satomi Blair), who vows to upgrade from a cubicle by age 30; and intern Miles (Ryan Woods), a guy whom everybody delights in abusing.
Lorin (Michael Federico) is a 37-year-old frustrated that he’s still only a fact-checker (“I majored in French. Why did I do that?”). And Gloria (Leah Spillman) is a copy editor who seems a little tense after her party last night, part of today’s office conversation. Spillman also plays editor Nan, who the audience assumes will be a Prada-wearing devil. Except we don’t get to know Nan until act two—after the shocker twist that closes the first act.
That is a major surprise that won’t be spoiled here, but it affects the characters in profound ways. Or, does it? In the second act they are still grappling with it—and memoirs and non-fiction are even more prescient. Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the barbs sharp and vicious, attacking a culture that normalizes and even glorifies humanity’s worst behavior. And some—writers, editors and TV producers, in this case—only want to turn them around as entertainment, even if it results in a “literary feud.”
Directed by Christie Vela, it moves fast and furiously, save for a few lulls in the writing in the second part, which feel boring after that explosive first half. Except for Lorin, these characters are all easy to hate, and Vela rarely gives the audience a chance to second guess that these are terrible people, even after we could have sympathy for some of them. She also capitalizes on the playwright’s pockets of uncomfortable humor.
Five of the actors are Dallas-based. Federico, Spillman and Wall are regulars at Kitchen Dog Theater and Second Thought Theatre, as is Vela—who has had a breakout year as a director. Their history as collaborators is evident, as those three give the best performances in roles that seem written for them.
Wall’s second-act breakdown as he angrily/desperately pronounces “I am fine” deserves its own viral meme. Federico’s portrayal of someone who has continually watched up-and-comers leap-frog him on the success ladder is painfully identifiable, with its mix of heartbreak and optimism. Blair (the non-local) has a supremely annoying character and it takes her a few speeches to hit her stride in the first act; her portrayal of another character in the second act lacks dimension and relies on archetype.
Vela’s collaboration with other local artists is also successful: Sound design by her husband John M. Flores; and especially recorded songs by a Liz Phair-like pop-rocker whose reported death in the first act sends the editors and writers scrambling for a story. Those tracks are written/composed/arranged by Jim Kuenzer and Ian Ferguson, and performed by Aubrey Ferguson, who was recently featured as a singer in a play by Federico and directed by Vela for Dallas’ The Drama Club.
Dahlia Al-Habieli’s scenic design of steel-and-glass panels is versatile, with special notice to the artwork in a second-act Starbucks scene that evokes the Big Event just before intermission.
All that glass is fitting for Gloria, which holds a big funhouse mirror to a society that is, sadly, accurately reflected—even if irreparably shattered.