‘Gloria’ explores dark, hilarious themes of ambition and loneliness
Now, this is one place you wouldn’t ever want to work in.
Directed by Chip Walton, “Gloria” opens on a crappy office tucked in the back of some New Yorker wannabe magazine in Midtown. We soon meet three remarkably cynical editorial assistants who appear to hate their jobs as much as they hate each other.
Ani (Sydnee Fullmer) seems pleasant enough, at first, but we soon learn she’s as caustic as Kendra (Desirée Mee Jung) and her main nemesis Dean (Brian Kusic). The fourth cubical-dweller is Miles (Rakeem Lawrence), a mild but clueless college intern on his last day at the magazine.
It’s telling that the play opens with only the sound of what’s on Miles’s headphones (Bach’s Mass in B Minor) — a nod to the themes of isolation and removal that permeate “Gloria ” — and an ominous nod of things to come. The play dwells in a place where headphones are a defense mechanism, a colleague’s gains are seen only as your losses, and lonely people trying to advance their careers can only spin their wheels until opportunity drops in their lap.
“Gloria” contains a single incident that, were I to divulge it, would be a tremendous spoiler. I can only say that Act One ends with an event that changes everything and which deposits aforementioned opportunity in the hands of three of the characters.
Dean appears to have the most claim on the story, which he bolts onto his lame memoir already in progress and secures a hefty advance.
That doesn’t stop Kendra from picking over the bones of the occurrence with her own book, and Dean’s editor Nan (Candace Joice) also gets in on the act almost as an afterthought.
And then there’s Lorin (Brian Landis Folkins), the overworked and perpetually harried fact checker who somehow lands in the middle.
Folkins, a Curious regular, was last seen onstage in a commanding performance as a senator in “Church and State” at the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs. In “Gloria,” he plays our ombudsman — the one character who views all the madness around him and has the morality and balls to call it out.
But that doesn’t come easy. Years of working at this dysfunctional magazine with its backbiting staff and crazed production schedules has him on the brink. Lorin must continually come into the room where the other characters are bickering and plead with them to pipe down. After doing so several times on the fateful day, he careens into a diatribe about how fucked up and hopeless the whole place is, which culminates in him falling to the floor clutching his head as the others stare in amazement.
It may look crazy, but they know he’s right.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins asks a lot of the audience in the first act. Few people, I hope, work in offices where people scream in each other’s faces or threaten them with violence on a regular basis. It’s hard to imagine a weekly magazine in New York — even a shitty one — ever making it to press with workers like these.
As Kendra, Mee Jung is that worker who strolls in late, appears to do nothing and then goes out for a Starbucks run. Kendra is a furious bitch who never lets off the gas in her full-frontal assaults on Dean — who’s just as big of an asshole. Ani enjoys sitting back and watching, relishing the drama while meddling whenever she gets the chance.
Lorin just wants them to please, please, please — Shut the fuck up!
(My expletives here very much mirror the dialogue in the show.)
Is there nothing redeeming at all in these three squabbling characters? Something to make us like them just a little bit, to make them relatable?
Miles in his innocence has our sympathy, as does Lorin. But Jacobs-Jenkins misses the mark with Ani, Dean and Kendra in making them so two-dimensional. The same holds true with Nan, who we don’t see until the second act. She may be the least sympathetic pregnant character ever seen on stage — we simply don’t care because we only see her awful side.
This kind of behavior drives a lot of the comedy in “Gloria,” far-fetched as it is. Ultimately, it’s up to Lorin — who coincidentally shows up in LA in Act Three — to put it all in context.
Folkins is fantastic in this role, the kind of actor you can’t take your eyes off when he’s on stage. Peering through thick, clear-framed glasses, he’s got a big lift carrying around the broken, moral compass the rest of the characters have abandoned — and he carries it well. His flummoxed, fulminating everyman is as hilarious as it is tragic, with Lorin’s plaintive entreaties for sanity wandering into nihilistic exhortations that later morph into a tepid resolution to, y’know, get to know the people he works with better.
As the only actor playing just one character, Folkins has a bigger platform for developing Lorin. But the others, playing several roles each, are a blast to watch.
This is a strong cast, well directed by Walton, with newcomers Fullmer, Joice, Kusic and Lawrence planting some impressive flags on the Curious stage. Fullmer has fun with the snaky doings of Ani, then ages up to a cold-hearted book publisher and then back down to star-struck Hollywood script reader in Act Three. These are nice transformations by the actress, with plenty of space and differentiation between the characters.
In Act Two, when Dean and Kendra have a writers’ détente of sorts at yet another Starbucks, Mee Jung is mild and conciliatory, but she’s showing that bottled fury in her eyes, and it’s not long before the two are going at it again, hammer and tongs. She reappears in Act Three as a Hollywood exec, a tight dress and buttoned-down demeanor transforming her.
Kusic, who plays the highly unstable Dean with humor and authenticity, doesn’t have to stretch Dean too much to become a jaded IT guy in Act Three. If there’s a more fitting name for that character than “Devin,” I haven’t heard it.
And I loved watching Lawrence move from the hapless intern to a philosophizing Starbucks clerk and then to an effete, absurdly under-qualified Hollywood producer.
The toughest casting swap to get my head around is with Joice. She’s a fine actress with the title role as the “emotional terrorist” copy editor Gloria. With few lines to work with, Joice gives us the full picture of Gloria’s mental state with a series of facial contortions and hand wringing. Holding her body as if she’d like to disappear within herself, Joice’s wealth of physical cues are as humorous as they are disturbing.
When she returns as Nan, though (who we only hear as a voice in Act One), it’s in a part so closely linked to that of Gloria that it’s tough to hold them apart.
“Gloria” holds a funhouse mirror up to the kinds of goings-on we may see in our own workplaces, not to mention on the nightly news. When it closes on Folkins in an abrupt but deeply satisfying ending, we’re left with the feeling that there is indeed something wrong with this society.
Do we even know each other anymore? Is there a bridge we can cross, a fence we can mend, an action we can take to restore this lost humanity?
Lorin holds up a modicum of hope, but it’s a thin ray we glimpse only briefly as the show fades to black.