June 24, 2015

"Gloria" Takes Its Author into New Territory

In some ways, Gloria, which has been extended at the Vineyard Theatre through July 18, isn’t remarkable at all. Like a growing number of books, movies, magazine articles and even other plays, it tells the story of a traumatic incident and the media aftershocks that follow. 

But there is one really remarkable thing about Gloria: it’s written by the young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose previous plays (Neighbors, Appropriate, An Octoroon) have dealt with the issue of race and this one doesn’t do that. 

And that's a good thing. Too often, in the theater and elsewhere, the assumption is made that the only thing people of color care about is the subject of race. Which, of course, isn’t true at all. 

So it’s significant that an African-American playwright as talented as Jacobs-Jenkins (click here to read a profile about him) has broken free from the pigeonhole and chosen to speak out about another strain on contemporary American society: the trivializing tendency to commercialize even the worst moments of our lives.

Gloria begins on an ordinary morning in the offices of a magazine, which some folks have speculated is a stand-in for The New Yorker, where Jacobs-Jenkins once worked. 

Its largely Ivy-educated editorial assistants are the usual motley crew of a slacker guy with a going-nowhere book proposal secreted away in his desk drawer, the office princess who can’t even bother getting to work on time and an earnest worker bee. 

Jacobs-Jenkins hasn't gone colorblind; parts are written specifically as African-American and Asian-American, as well as white. But the great thing is that their color doesn't define any of the characters. 

As the show opens, they're all griping about their demanding bosses and gossiping about a depressing party given the night before by the mousy copy editor Gloria and attended by only one of them, the slacker Dean.

The dialog is witty and entertaining, particularly for a New York audience filled with people who had or have jobs just like these. But eventually something happens so shocking that I literally gasped out loud. 

As regular readers know, I try to keep these posts spoiler free but I want to be even more careful than usual in describing this show because much of its power comes from not knowing what will happen next.

The scenes that followed my gasp deal with the aftermath of the event that precipitated it, as those affected by the incident not only struggle to recover from it but compete to cash in on their version of what happened. 

And here's another remarkable thing about Gloria: aided by the deft direction of Evan Cabnet, Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t overplay the characters' literal or moral tugs-of-war, which makes their solipsism—and, by implication, that of the broader society—all the more disturbing.

The six-member cast, a mix of off-Broadway vets and newbies, is superb. It’s tough to single any of them out, although Ryan Spahn as Dean and Michael Crane as a cranky fact-checker are given the meatiest parts and they make feasts of them. The creative crew does a bang-up job too, including (a bit of a spoiler) fight choreographer J. David Brimmer.

Theater companies are queuing up to work with Jacobs-Jenkins. Over the past five years, his plays have been done by the Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Soho Rep and Yale Rep and he’s got commissions to do new works for LCT3 and MTC. Smart theatergoers should be lining up too, whether he’s writing about race or anything else.

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