Chicago Theatre Review
Tragedy in a Toxic Workplace
Gloria – Goodman Theatre
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the 2014 Obie Award winner for Best New American Play, has imported the original director, Evan Cabnet, and the entire six-member cast of his latest play from Off Broadway to the Goodman Theatre. This fierce, funny and very disturbing black comedy/drama explores many issues about hard-working Americans and the political and social dynamics of the workplace. But it’s the violent and tragic event that brings act one to its shocking conclusion that inspires the rest of this play. Everything that happens in this dark drama is the result of toiling in a toxic workplace.
A year before writing “Gloria,” the playwright won the 2015 Steinberg Playwrights Award. In his speech, artistic director Page Evans said of this playwright that Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “plays are fiercely intelligent…and boldly theatrical.” He went on to comment that “they challenge, entertain and unsettle audiences, making us laugh, gasp and think deeply about race, class, personal ambition and other complex issues.” This, in a nutshell, summarizes the playwright’s latest work, which also was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The committee for that prestigious honor said that “Gloria is a play of wit and irony that deftly transports the audience from satire to thriller and back again.” Because audiences and the media have been requested not to divulge details about the plot, which would understandably undermine the power of this piece for future theatergoers, very little of the story can be shared.
The story involves the employees and several events that transpire at a New York magazine. The young, assistant editors, all aspiring writers, grouse and complain about the monotony of their jobs, among other things. Tension builds over who should be allowed to write the obituary of a pop singer, whose death points to a drug overdose. A party, given the night before by the title character, was a flop because only a handful of her fellow workers showed up. Dean, one of the employees, attended the party and stayed to the bitter end. He arrives at work the following morning with a hangover and regrets that he wasted his evening at Gloria’s boring soiree.
The day in the office is filled with gossip, whining, backstabbing and complaining, not only from Dean, but from amiable Ani, annoyingly antagonistic Kendra and the eager-to-please intern, Miles. Throughout the loud arguments that transpire we hear the editor, Nan, loudly laughing and chatting on the other side of her office door. We also receive intermittent visits from fact-checker Lorin, asking his younger co-workers to please keep the noise down; and dowdy, nerdy, longtime copy editor, Gloria, who wanders into the room several times in a daze. Following a turbulent first act, the second act, which unfolds in two separate locations within one and two years of the first act, continues the story about ambitious workers willing to do anything to climb the ladder of success. The drama looks at how people will use anything, even someone else’s tragedy, to get ahead and make money.
The cast is extraordinary. Several of the actors morph into a second and third character throughout the play. Those who play the same role throughout skillfully take us with them on their journey of growth. Ryan Spahn superbly captures the unfulfilled, frustrated young Millennial worker who feels stuck in his job with little hope of advancement or recognition. Jennifer Kim embodies Kendra, the bitchy, ever-critical young worker, who barely works, yet wants her own piece of the pie. Kyle Beltran portrays the ambivalent, smart intern Miles, an affable kid who’s in his final hours of an internship at the magazine. Catherine Combs, a stunningly versatile actress (so excellent in the Goodman’s recent production of “Smokefall”), creates a likable, empathetic young employee named Ani. Like the other three actors, this chameleon transforms seamlessly into two totally different characters during the second act.
Michael Crane creates the role of Lorin, an older employee whose career has become his entire life. He’s the kind of guy Dean doesn’t want to become, yet he sees himself headed in that dead-end direction. In Lorin’s impassioned monologue we come to understand and empathize with this dedicated, overworked and under-appreciated employee who no longer can see a way out of the rat race. His reappearance in the final scene shows an excellent actor who’s created a character who’s adapted and grown.
Jeanine Serralles perhaps achieves the greatest dramatic growth and success among this ensemble. She’s the unseen voice of Nan, a character we come to know only by her audible outbursts. She’s also the frumpy, befuddled titular character, Gloria, who wanders in and out of the scene to retrieve a snack or thank Dean for attending her party. However, in the second act, Ms. Serralles becomes Nan once again, but a year later. She’s undergone a big change, due to events that occur in act one. But more than that she’s evolved into a completely different person. Motherhood and success have altered her and she’s stronger and wiser than before. This terrific actress reminds audiences somewhat of actress Kristen Wiig in her phrasing, delivery and even in her blase, off-the-cuff manner.
The whole production, deftly directed by Evan Cabnet, is set within three beautifully detailed, yet ultimately sterile scenic designs, by Takeshi Kata. Costume designer Ilona Somogyi and hair and wig designer Cookie Jordan have created an appropriate, unique look for each character, and Matt Tierney has blended music and special effects nicely into a realistic sound design that befits this story.
Violence has become so commonplace in today’s world that its sudden appearance at first shocks and then ultimately fades into our memory. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ latest play is a sly combination of dark comedy and shrewd observation of a toxic work environment and sudden, gut-wrenching tragedy. Audiences will either love this comic drama or hate it. It unfolds in a polished production that will initially upset audiences. This play will undoubtedly be the subject of controversy and spark much conversation, but one thing is certain: this is an excellent show that will be difficult to forget.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 14-February 19 in the Albert Theatre by the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Goodman box office, by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Gloria.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.