“If everybody wants you,” so goes the song, “why isn’t anybody calling?” It’s probable that Laura’s Branigan’s immortal 1982 hit single was on the mind of 30-year-old playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins when he was brainstorming his newest drama Gloria, playing through July 3rd at the Vineyard Theatre. Then again, it’s just one reference of many, unfortunately too many, that he likely had running through his system while writing it. Originally titled Gloria; or Ambition—the wisely shortened title is more powerful—the play explodes with ideas but never finds the right realist tone or gains the audience’s faith enough to fully execute them.
The title character (Jeanine Serralles) works as a copy editor at a fledgling, unnamed NYC magazine. She is an odd, subterranean turtle of a woman who’s read the magazine since she was a little girl, and as the play begins, the other denizens of the office—editorial assistants Dean (Ryan Spahn) and Ani (Catherine Combs)—are speaking about her in the gratuitously nasty tone of kids in the cafeteria, inventing justifications to bully the awkward girl in school. The night before, Gloria had thrown a housewarming party at her new apartment and though everyone from the magazine was invited, Dean was one of only two or three people to attend. He recounts in overheated detail how Gloria was so humiliated that she holed up in her kitchen slicing limes the whole night. “She’s an emotional terrorist,” Ani shouts, hyperbolically. “She held you hostage emotionally.”
Also featured in the office are the artificially high-pitched writer Kendra (Jennifer Kim), who’s meant to represent the cynical future of media, obsessed with regurgitating and memorializing everything; the fussy fact-checker Lorin (Mike Crane), symbolizing the industry’s assiduous past; and the intern Miles (Kyle Beltran), who regards the staff’s incessant complaining and self-involvement as less interesting than the tunes in his earbuds.
And there are times when we might wish for a pair of those as well. Especially with the Kendra character, and her thoroughly rote and unconvincing Act I monologue about how “the publishing world’s collapsed” and “all these martinis lunches have all dried up,” Jacobs-Jenkins is confusing the strident speech of a flip narcissist with his own didactic point-making. Director Evan Cabnet (The Model Apartment) is somewhat at the mercy of Jacobs-Jenkins’ Mametesque dialogue, despite a handsomely mounted production that includes a stunning scenery change—from the cubicle and frosted-glass office interior to another environment of drudgery that everyone will recognize—at the beginning of Act II. Set designer Takeshi Kata (Adding Machine, Through a Glass Darkly) exhibits a real gift for the specificity of banal workspaces.
But the play—the plot summary of which I’m withholding so not to spoil its genuine horror and surprise—never sings with interpretive, inflammatory meaning like Jacobs-Jenkins’ barnstorming An Octoroon, which first lit up the New York boards last year. The words these characters speak don’t hold any compelling mystery about who they are, which is a symptom of Jacobs-Jenkins general attitude of antipathy towards them. Except for in one fascinating detail: Serralles, the play’s MVP, has less than two dozen lines as the mousy Gloria, but also appears (as most of the performers do) in another role. In her case, it’s as a vivacious chatterbox editor at the magazine named Nan—and by having the same actress play both roles, Jacobs-Jenkins makes a touching, penetrating point about how each type of person we know, with minor adjustments, could be someone else. It’s the play’s only observation worthy of one of America’s most exciting dramatists. C+