Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' latest work premieres at the Vineyard Theatre.
Plays like An Octoroon and Appropriate, both produced off-Broadway last season, signaled Branden Jacobs-Jenkins as a dramatist to watch. Whether presenting a slave drama from 1859 through a contemporary lens or tearing apart the conventions of the traditional family play, Jacobs-Jenkins is an author who audaciously remolds familiar subject matter by pushing the boundaries of theater to their limits. His latest, Gloria, now at the Vineyard Theatre under the slam-dunk direction of Evan Cabnet, is just as fearless. This is an exciting, disturbing, and truly major piece that breathes fresh air into a time-tested subject. And it will shake audiences to their cores.
The first act introduces us to several twentysomething editorial assistants starting an average workweek at a major magazine — Dean (Ryan Spahn), whose hard drinking dulls the fact that he's never been promoted; Ani (Catherine Combs), the relatively unassuming one who doesn't think she's ambitious; and Kendra (Jennifer Kim), a hanger-on who spends most of her time at Starbucks and on social media.
Dean comes in late, completely hungover after having gone to a housewarming party thrown by their mousy coworker Gloria (Jeanine Serralles). No one else from the office attended. The intern, Miles (Kyle Beltran), is finishing up the final days of his six-week internship. Ani and Kendra mourn the death of a popular singer, whose overdose suddenly changes the tone of the latest issue, much to the chagrin of fact-checker Lorin (Michael Crane). It's a mostly ordinary day — until it's not.
The end of Act 1 results in an explosive conclusion that sets in motion the quieter but no less shocking second half (a commentary on contemporary media culture). While you might see this cliffhanger coming a mile away (both onstage and if you read between the lines of the Vineyard's paragraph-long show blurb), in the hands of this playwright and this director, it feels as though it's the first time something like this has ever been done.
Jacobs-Jenkins proves himself a keen observer of the daily office grind. Whether it's the maturer Lorin complaining that his colleagues are being too loud, or Kendra's insanely funny and very factual mantra — "Too much networking turns you into an alcoholic" — the dialogue and situations are so extremely realistic that it's almost as though he took conversations he overheard around the printer and simply transcribed them.
Delivered by the astonishing cast of six (three members of whom are making their off-Broadway debuts), Gloria sings with the vitality of youth. Cabnet methodically ratchets up the tension in Jacobs-Jenkins' uncomfortably authentic words until you find yourself on the edge of your seat waiting for the levee to break, only to be shocked into a fetal position when it finally does.
The design team is on the same hyper-realistic page. Takeshi Kata provides three completely different locations, including two offices and an intricately detailed Starbucks. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are business-casual chic, while Matt Frey expertly captures the office-style fluorescent lighting that bathes everything in a slightly off-yellow hue. Matt Tierney's sound design provides a jolt to the system.
Gloria also contains one of the best, lighting-fast special effects to be seen off-Broadway in recent memory. Like the play itself, its shocking believability will make your jaw drop.