NEW YORK (AP) — Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins presents a smart, cynical view of the publishing and entertainment industries in his sharp satire, "Gloria."
Several of his previous plays, such as "An Octoroon," ''Appropriate" and "Neighbors," deal with issues of race, but "Gloria" deals with ruthless ambition, career anxieties, and careless disregard for colleagues — and the truth — in the cutthroat world of contemporary publishing.
A group of ambitious but lazy 20-something editorial assistants at a national magazine in New York, fearing they are dead-ending in their careers, snipe against one another in their cubicle farm in humorously catty fashion. They avoid work as they gossip about colleagues, notably dissing a "desperately sad" party thrown the night before by a very shy, unpopular co-worker named Gloria (Jeanine Serralles).
Jennifer Kim is memorably bitchy as Kendra, whose own boss avoids her, and Catherine Combs is only marginally nicer as Anika. Ryan Spahn exudes likeability as very decent and very hung-over Dean, while Kyle Beltran is polished as Harvard-educated intern Miles, who politely fetches sodas for these spoiled assistants. Michael Crane gives a haunted air to Lorin, a bookish older fact-checker who keeps reappearing to shush the youngsters, then suddenly gives a moving speech about the futility of his career.
Director Evan Cabnet has artfully staged an everyday office environment, although many of the characters are extra-nasty and hiding their occasional human fallibilities beneath barbed facades. Jacobs-Jenkins' dialogue sparkles with venom, as when Kendra derides older publishing executives by claiming they were "too busy bluffing and boozing their way through the '80s/'90s, as opposed to, I don't know, anticipating the Internet."
Despite one of the young people referring to Gloria as "an emotional terrorist," Serralles shuffles on and off stage like the living dead, so it's quite shocking when the play veers into dark territory as she suddenly takes umbrage against her co-workers with overheated vigor.
In the second act, Gloria's colleagues are trying to deal with the aftermath of her behavior. Some who didn't even witness it are trying to profit from writing books about it, while those with first-hand knowledge are too shattered to discuss it.
Most of the talented cast reappears as different characters, first in a coffee shop and then working in television on the West coast. Characters generally display the same exploitative ambition, except now with Hollywood repackaging. Serralles especially shines as a lively senior editor with a hidden agenda, and Beltran gives street-cred diversity to a barista.
Unfortunately, the second and third acts are not really compelling, aside from deft backstabbing and jockeying for deals. The suspense that Jacobs-Jenkins and Cabnet created with the first-act denouement and first-rate dialogue can't override the fact that the entertainment industry's utter lack of interest in the truth is not news.
Still, "Gloria" bears a persuasive message about being a little nicer to colleagues at work, because you never know what's really in that lunch bag.