Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah), Ani (Martha Brigham), and Dean (Jeremy Kahn) kill time at the office by needling each other and talking shit about their jobs. They all work as assistants at a publishing company. That is to say, a step below the associate editors. Of the three, Dean, who’s about to turn 30, has been at the company the longest. Five years into his career and he’s still stuck being an assistant. With Kendra goading him along, it’s been easier for him to bitch about his lowly status than it’s been to rise above it.
From the morose copy machine to the sadly decorated gray cubicles, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria is a workplace satire that criticizes the details of office life with the specific vocabulary of someone who has experienced its particular woes. But what begins as a trenchant take on the soul-sucking nature of office politics carefully tenses up until the focus narrows onto someone who actually has lost their soul. The play evolves from being a comic commentary about unsatisfying day jobs into a tragedy that examines the characters and their responses to grief.
The world that the playwright builds, and reflects back to us, is a modern, heartless, urban one. That means — and this is crucial to our understanding of the milieu and the motivations — that these ambitious people are only out for themselves. Their striving is made apparent as Jacobs-Jenkins reframes the characters’ relationships with one another in the second act.
Before the tragedy takes place at their office, Kendra and Dean are cruel to each other in the same way that siblings are. Dean teases Kendra about her vapid social media posts. She repeatedly points out his perpetual stagnancy. Months later, they meet at a coffee shop to check in. Their initial concern for each other’s fragile states of mind quickly devolves into professional maneuvering. They’re both planning to write a book about their shared terrible experience.
Then, with Eric Ting’s clear-eyed direction, Gloria leaves them behind to present multiple points of view. The narrative structure moves forward as if governed by the eye of an omniscient camera. It’s an accomplished, contemporary update of Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950). Like Kurosawa, Jacobs-Jenkins provides a coherent emotional response for each remaining character’s version of events. And it’s not that the versions differ that much. What the playwright exposes is the selfish and primitive need to own the story outright.
Nan (Lauren English), Dean’s former boss, runs into him as he’s leaving the cafe. In the aftermath, he, perhaps, has suffered more than anyone else in the office. But instead of visiting Dean in the hospital after his nervous breakdown, Nan avoided him and his phone calls. Even though he worked for her for half a decade, her indifference indicates that there’s a considerable difference between being a friend and being a co-worker. They aren’t equivalent.
After Dean leaves, Nan admits to her friend Sasha (Brigham) that she couldn’t take on the burden of caring for him. But the gears start to turn in her mind. She was also at the office that day. Why shouldn’t she write a book about her experience too? In this scene, English and Brigham embody the myopia of self-serving privilege. They’re perfectly smug because they always get what they want.
In the marvelous closing scene, a minor character from the first act returns to the stage, but in the foreground. While everyone else is grubbing around for fame and fortune, Lorin (Matt Monaco) is still burdened. He’s trying to start over but what he really wants to do is to connect with the people at his new job. Therein lies the real tragedy. His new coworkers are self-involved, intolerant, and self-protective, just like his old ones. The 9-5 culture of apathy and narcissism is a breeding ground for a deadening disease — social isolation.
Gloria is streaming at act-sf.org through April 5.