There is real resentment when all people, especially those in their twenties, realize their careers are not getting any better. That feeling must be more acutely felt when the young people come from a place of unparalleled privilege. Gloria, the electrifying new dark comedy from Pulitzer finalist Branden Jacob-Jenkins, is keenly aware of how that resentment informs human nature. It starts off like a screwball comedy, only to become something much more disturbing, raw, and cynical.
Before working as a playwright, Jacob-Jenkins worked at The New Yorker. The setting, thoughtfully designed with mismatched linoleum, is an unnamed magazine inspired by The New Yorker and countless others. Three editorial assistants and one intern set at the center, butting into each other’s lives and trading insults. Dean (Conrad Schott) rolls in late because he is hungover from the night before: he went to a housewarming party for Gloria (Alyssa Wilmouth Keegan), an awkward employee, and he got drunk because no one else showed. His friend Ani (Megan Graves) is apologetic – she did not think he was serious about going – while Kendra (Eunice Hong) is more openly hostile (the intern Miles (Justin Weaks)) keeps to himself). Then there is Lorin (Ahmad Kamal), a hapless fact-checker on the cusp of a nervous breakdown.
Directed by Kip Fagan, Gloria crackles with energy and snappy dialogue. These characters are office drones, but they’re well-educated office drones, so their conversation veers toward comic exaggeration. There is a wonderful sustained monologue where Kendra blames everyone but herself for her lack of opportunities, with most of her bile directed at the gluttony of Baby Boomers. The subtext for the first act is indignity. No one here feels they deserve what they got, and the dialogue imagines countless reasons for why people may act out on it.
At the end of the first act, Gloria drastically changes. I won’t say exactly what happens, except to note that the play’s website has a content warning for gun violence. The second act is all about the fallout from this violence, with most of the actors playing different roles. The breakneck energy is gone, and yet there is still tension since the show’s violence casts a dark shadow over what follows. This is where Gloria reveals the true nature of its satire: it is about who “owns” tragedy, and where trauma intersects with opportunism.
Thanks to the layered dialogue, all the actors have an opportunity to present complex, wholly flawed characters. They all rise to occasion – there is not a weak link in the bunch – and a few performers are more memorable than the others. Weaks, who may have seen earlier this year in The Studio Theater’s Curve of Depature, here has an unforced naturalism with three characters who could not be more different. He also has arguably the funniest line in the play, delivered so nonchalantly that you just might miss it. Kamal is terrific as Lorin specifically because he is not trying to be funny: he has a frenzied monologue where he imagines the sweet relief of suicide where I found myself doubled over with laughter. Still, Hong is the clear stand-out. Kendra is a wonderful comic creation, so it is all the more bracing when she also dishes out some honest perspective.
Gloria first premiered in 2015, and in the wake of the Annapolis shootings, it has only grown more disturbing and relevant. Jacob-Jenkins is clearly interested in how individuals succeed in systems that are indifferent towards them. Education, privilege, and even celebrity are like jokes when everyone amounts to little more than a functionary, or something that can be monetized. There is humanity in Gloria, except most characters are too reserved and humiliated to articulate what they really feel. Once it becomes clear this indignity helps explain what happens in the play – even the violence – then Gloria transitions from a good play into a great one.