Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, now 33, was named a MacArthur “genius” grant winner in 2016, the same year his play “Gloria” was chosen as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Earlier, his provocative, stylistically diverse, subversive plays “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon” (the latter was produced by Coral Gables’ Area Stage last fall) each won best new American play Obie Awards.
The point? Jacobs-Jenkins has enjoyed the kind of huge, envy-making early career success that fuels the dreams of the more nakedly ambitious characters in “Gloria.”
GableStage artistic director Joseph Adler has just opened his company’s sharp production of Jacob-Jenkins’ observantly funny, shocking play. Anyone who has worked in an office, especially over the past decade and particularly if that office happens to house a media company, will recognize the corporate culture so perfectly delineated in “Gloria.” Jacobs-Jenkins knows it because he worked as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker a decade ago, when he was fresh out of Princeton.
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In the culture department at the midtown Manhattan offices of a major magazine, we meet brash and fiercely competitive editorial assistants, an intern who doesn’t know what he wants to do in life, the publication’s aggrieved chief fact checker and the title character, a former Floridian who edits copy and manages to creep the others out with her odd affect.
In the first act, after we get to know the characters and their wit, ruthlessness and casual cruelty, a shocking and graphically staged act of violence happens. In the next scene, two of the survivors meet at a Starbucks to discuss their respective book deals, and it doesn’t go well. The final scene, set in the Los Angeles offices of a television production company, looks at the permutations and exploitation-worthy shelf life of a tragedy.
Though “Gloria” is obviously serious and sobering, the play is also darkly, observantly funny thanks to Jacob-Jenkins’ way with satire. When a pop star dies of an overdose and the still-in-school intern asks who the woman was, an editorial assistant says, “Now I feel, like, 100 years old.” She also says, to her “aging” three-years-older colleague, “I would die before I turned 30 in a f**king cubicle.”
The assistants rail against healthy Baby Boomers who won’t retire, allowing them to move up; now, unlike the old days, “Everything’s all constipated, because people actually died back then.”
Adler has, as always, cast his production with fine actors who get to demonstrate their versatility in multiple roles. Only Cliff Burgess, as the agitated fact checker Lorin, plays a single character. But the actor brilliantly delivers an incipient-breakdown monologue in the first act, then in the final scene comes across as a man propelled toward change by tragedy.
Clay Cartland’s smug, wise-ass Dean has a drinking problem and literary ambitions, the later a common trait among the editorial assistants. His breezy humor in the first act gives way to the convincing portrayal of a deeply damaged man in the second scene. In the third, he transforms into an IT guy named Devin, who is dismissive of those whose computers he works on and nothing like Dean.
Lai-Si Lassalle is Dean’s fiercest opponent as Kendra, a combative woman who writes blog posts on beauty and fashion, complains about her workload, then pops out to Starbucks for a coffee not too long after arriving late, yet again, for work. In the last scene, she’s Jenna, ready to make a TV movie from the perspective of a woman who was present but saw nothing when the tragedy unfolded two years earlier.
Sheri Wieseman alters her look and her demeanor to play editorial assistants Ani and Sasha, then engages in a sob-fest as Callie, Jenna’s assistant. Phillip Andrew Santiago is Miles, the brainy Harvard intern; Shawn, a Starbucks barista with a big personality; and Rashaad, a recently promoted TV movie guy who’s not yet accustomed to his new power position.
Katherine McDonald inhabits two radically different characters, first appearing as the tightly wound Gloria, then as Nan, a key editor and mother-to-be who decides that she, too, has a story to tell.
The GableStage design team — set designer Lyle Baskin, lighting designer Steve Welsh, sound and music designer Matt Corey, costume designer Ellis Tillman, special effects designer Waldo Washaw — meets the script’s challenges, taking us from the magazine’s sterile office (where the assistants clearly spend money on chic clothes and Gloria does not) to a midtown Starbucks with snow falling outside to the more colorful yet still sterile TV production office.
In “Gloria,” Jacobs-Jenkins adroitly captures the zeitgeist of the contemporary workplace, the desire to be seen and appreciated, the psychological disconnect that can lead to bloody violence. Adler, his cast and collaborators have created a production that underscores exactly why Jacobs-Jenkins possesses a voice worth seeking out.
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If you go
- What: ‘Gloria’ by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
- Where: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
- When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through May 6.
- Cost: $42-$60 (students $15 Thursday and Sunday evenings).
- Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org