Ambition and selfishness prevail in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ dark comedy.
Despite everything that comes after, the first half hour of Gloria, now playing at the Goodman Theatre, would make a great pilot for a misanthropic sitcom. Urbane and glib, but not too sophisticated for a protracted puke joke, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' script takes on the ambitions and rivalries of cynical young editorial assistants at a national magazine, at a time when print media is on a steep decline.
Without fail, the employees we see onstage are frustrated, disenchanted, and bitter. When Dean (Ryan Spahn) arrives at the office, late and hungover, he dishes to his cubicle-mates about the terrible time he had at the sparsely attended housewarming party thrown by colleague Gloria (Jeanine Serralles). Sharp-tongued Kendra (Jennifer Kim) and easygoing Ani (Catherine Combs, who shines in a subdued role) can't believe Dean actually went to a party thrown by "the office freak." Most of Act 1 is traded barbs at the expense of Gloria, their bosses, and one another, all within earshot of their intern Miles (the winning Kyle Beltran), the lone figure whose hopes and dreams have not yet been crushed. The editorial team is a thorn in the side of tightly wound fact-checker Lorin (Michael Crane) who works down the hall, and whose long tenure at the magazine is, he alleges, sapping his will to live.
Critics have been instructed not to reveal certain crucial plot elements, and so it may be easier to report what doesn't happen. Gloria is not a story of courage under fire. Nobody discovers the hero inside themselves, or grows resilient in the face of tough times. To the contrary, as things get worse for our protagonists, they grow worse right along with it. When Dean and Kendra butt heads throughout Act 1, it's irritating, as it was surely intended to be. When they clash again in Act 2, they are simply vile.
Being vile can be fun, and Jennifer Kim really goes the distance as Kendra, seemingly relishing each deep dive into nastiness. The sneering Spahn succeeds more in his comedic moments than in his dramatic turn, during which he struggles equally with uneven dialogue and a distracting false beard. Despite appearing only sporadically, Lorin is arguably the most fleshed-out human being in Gloria, and Crane finds the humanity under his tics and fits.
This production pulls no punches, and that's not always a good thing. Takeshi Kata's set is a spot-on re-creation of an open-space office floor plan, but the sound sometimes gets lost in that open void. The lighting by Matt Frey is as bleak and unvaried as the corporate hellscape it mimics.
Gloria is very clever. Like its characters, the play revels in misery, and mines fresh takes on familiar complaints. Under Evan Cabnet's direction, the ensemble is certainly tight, and their dialogue whip-smart, but there isn't always a great deal of nuance in their relentless contempt.