New York City is a media capitol of the Western world and it generates a mythical image of power and success for budding writers like those working the magazine office of Gloria. But dreams don’t last forever and the facade quickly falls to reveal more to the characters than they perhaps cared to know. What builds and backs ambition? And what happens when times runs out?
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s script can be cleanly divided into a before and an after. It begins as a satire, tackling notions of ambition, the scrambling rat race of the waning print industry, and the shifting power dynamics of a labour force in denial about unavoidable changes in working conditions, all holed up in the insular epicentre of New York City. The second half is more sprawling, run out; a psychological examination of trauma, change, and identity in the modern age. Together in Gloria, Jacobs-Jenkins attempts to capture a culture in flux and the particular brand of anxious fatigue bred in circumstances of deep uncertainty.
Dean (Rowan Witt), Ani (Annabel Harte), Kendra (Michelle Ny), and their intern Miles (Justin Amankwah) have come to embody the insecure and spiteful atmosphere of their magazine office jobs. They arrive late with little to do besides gossip and needle each other into arguments and they are suffocating under a stagnant industry that demands their supplication but fails to reward their unfulfilled ambitions. Kendra is confrontational without the recognition to support her demands, Ani is still fresh-faced but has arrived with an escape route of a college degree in another field, and Dean is sliding into desperation with every passing day. Miles comes from another generation, one willing to admit their uncertainty about the future and acknowledge the changing job market. His presence throws the declining landscape of the magazine into stark relief and challenges the staff’s denial in subtle, uncomfortable ways.
Alexander Berlage’s direction heightens the tight tension of this group’s flares with animated contempt and an aggressive tone that tars each character with the same disdainful brush. However, the long tirades and drawn-out conversations grow static without a greater emotional grounding and interest in mundanity. In particular, Kendra’s monologue about generational inequality in the print industry feels overblown and undermines the script’s allusion to the inability to articulate a culture shift while you’re living it. The characters fill the air with nonsense words to compensate for their disappointment and dissatisfaction with their lives and especially their careers.
In the second half, when the office den has dissolved and the characters have seeped into the wider world, the relaxation of more space and air becomes oppressive for the staff members who cannot shed the world of “before”. When grappling with the intrusion of memories into their new lives, they do what they know best in their capitalist familiarity: they market themselves. Kendra manifests her irrelevance in a book about other people’s experiences, Dean’s ex-boss Nan (Georgina Symes) spins a new-age tale about humanity and the will to live, and Dean loses control of his own life, his dreams succumbing to more interesting stories.
It’s here that Gloria stretches to include wider considerations like the age-old question of who owns an experience but also the more contemporary concern of what to do after you suffer a public tragedy. With a media saturated market, consumers are always searching for another sensation to ogle and, for the right kind of victim, your life can become very lucrative. Dean’s unravelling, his attempts to hold on to a sense of self, is indicative of the way capitalist media has inverted conceptions of work and self, inextricably linking the worker with the person with detrimental effects.
Witt’s representation of a man changed and a man lost is remarkable. The distortion of his humble ambitions through a predatory industry showed great vulnerability and a relatable self-doubt. Reza Momenzada similarly demonstrated a deep understanding of the production in his character arc from brittle, defeated fact-checker Lorin to a poignant and grounded realist in the final scenes. His transformation and entreaty to tell a different story embodied a hopeful recognition of our changing world.
Set and costume design from Jeremy Allen was clean and sharp, including literally recreating a seasonal Starbucks on stage. The great irony of office spaces are made palpable in his grand transparent walls that remain exclusionary and unfoundedly discriminatory while the assistants fight tooth and nail for their shared working spaces. The sound design from Ben Pierpoint adds additional grandeur in operatic tones that coordinate with the stage’s proscenium. These elements of majesty work in juxtaposition to the everyday familiarity of the set spaces and strengthens the theatricality of Gloria as a production.
Gloria is a play about a moment in time that came about unexpectedly and will continue to have unknown ramifications for the way our society conceptualises identity and work in future generations. In a narrative that spans the world of vapid office drama to far darker psychological explorations, it’s a production that draws on all the hidden emotions and motivations of the modern world that go unaddressed until something horrible throws them into the light.
Gloria is running at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre from June 6th – 22nd