A more cynical critic would say that Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins wrote his 2015 Pulitzer finalist play, Gloria, specifically so that it couldn’t be reviewed.
We can say it’s a story of ambition, the demise of traditional media, the soul-suck of career inertness, and our need to commodify heinous experiences. We can say it’s tremendously witty, observant, and oh so caustic. But to say much more would be to rob audiences of the shock, aftermath, and insight Jacobs-Jenkins has in store for them.
If you’ve ever seen his work before, you’ll know that Jacobs-Jenkins is a disrupter. He takes meaty topics and disembowels expectations. Nowhere was this more evident than his wildly unorthodox 2014 play, An Octoroon, that turned portrayals of race on its head. While it’s true that Gloria doesn’t have the same inventiveness, it nonetheless expertly showcases Jacobs-Jenkins’ ability to unravel situations and events we think contain knowable playbooks.
Set in 2010 in the Manhattan offices of an unnamed national magazine in decline thanks to the burgeoning digital world, the play centers around the twenty-ish-year-old editorial assistants. Some are waiting for their big break, impatient to climb the publishing ranks. Others are pondering if publishing is where they belong at all. None of them are happy about the hapless grind of an early career run by industry dinosaurs.
Ani (Skyler Sinclair) is a math whiz testing out the publishing world. Dean (Wesley Whitson) drinks too much but has serious writing aspirations, Kendra (Karina Pal-Montaño-Bowers) has a sharp tongue, a shopping habit, and a tenuous five-year success plan, and Ivy League intern Miles (Tadrian White) isn’t sure what he’s going to do with his life.
The senior staff at the magazine don’t fare much better. Editor Nan (Brooke Wilson) comes in hungover every morning, Senior Factchecker Lorin (Brandon Hearnsberger) is one step away from a stress breakdown and Gloria (Brooke Wilson) is the friendless office oddball loner who’s spent years at the magazine without a promotion.
For much of Act One, the colleagues prowl around either other playing merciless office politic games, trading insults, and self-aggrandizing. But make no mistake, this isn't a Neil Labute play. Jacobs-Jenkins has far bigger fish to fry than people behaving badly full stop. In Gloria, his characters’ bad behavior isn’t merely for shock or laughs, it’s a far deeper examination of the times we find ourselves in. Or more specifically, the times we’ve created and accepted for ourselves.
One regular day in an office goes awry and suddenly our gauge of appropriateness goes out the window. Pity our broken, greedy, detached, lost souls. And then pity the appetite we crave for the content created from this state.
The good thing about an inability to say more than this about the play itself is that it leaves ample room to sing the praises of the production and mention the one misstep.
This is the second effort we’ve seen by Director James Black in the last few months (Amerikin at the Alley was the first) and it’s apparent from both shows that Black is an actor’s director. No surprise given his years as a resident actor at the Alley.
Shunning needless flitting about, Black has his actors tied to their desks for most of the first act, swiveling in chairs to talk to each other, when necessary, but often remaining eyes forward as they spar over their shoulders with each other.
This relative stillness permeates throughout the rest of the play as well.
It takes a director confident in the power of what a well-prepared actor can accomplish to do away with busy stage direction, and boy does Black tease the best out of each member of his cast. Gloria is truly a superb ensemble effort with most actors playing multiple roles, but kudos must be paid to three performances in particular.
Nan’s monologue of emotion that turns to greed in the second act may only last for minutes but Brooke Wilson’s makes every word count. With pauses and half-finished words emphasizing or perhaps auditioning grief, she sucks us in and spits us out in maddening fashion. We don’t know whether to applaud her prowess or hate her callousness. We are used and abused in fine form thanks to Wilson’s control.
Lorin the fact-checker is the character that could skew most hackneyed in this show. He’s angry and impatient and storms in and out of the assistants’ office demanding quiet. He’s ready to blow and we’re waiting for it.
However, Brandon Hearnsberger finds a way to rein in that anger and make it interesting tension instead. When he finally unloads in a stream of consciousness, Hearnsberger keeps it cerebral rather than visceral, allowing a fuller character to unfold. Our connection with him becomes crucial in later scenes and it’s thanks to Hearnsberger's restraint that we remain allied with him as the play unfolds.
With a cast as strong as this one, it’s perhaps a tad hyperbolic to say that Wesley Whitson is the standout performance in the show – but at minimum, he deserves special mention. Whitson is an actor we’re used to seeing play broad roles on Houston stages. And he’s excellent at them. A triple threat of actor/dancer/singer we’ve seen him use his talents to play over-the-top character roles in many shows.
This is why in Gloria, his more sarcastically sedate and ultimately troubled Dean is a revelation of talents we didn’t know he had. From his poker face dismissals in Act One to his nervous tics in Act Two, Whitson’s performance is an exercise in superb subtlety. It’s a full flex on an otherwise full resume of talents and a skill it would be wise for more casting directors to notice.
It’s not by accident that the one ding at the production is buried here at the bottom of the critique. Especially since it concerns the hinge already deemed unfair to talk about.
Suffice it to say, the early turn of events that sets off shock waves for the rest of the play feels a little lackluster. Not certain if things went awry on opening night (as they often do), but Sound Designer Jon Harvey's effects didn't fully illustrate the gravity of the situation, and Black's direction was rushed, missing crucial impact.
Luckily this meant only that audience gasps were scarce, not that the narrative turn didn’t resonate at a decent frequency for the rest of the show.
Jacobs-Jenkins' works have no room for sparing the audience. It's not assault for laceration's sake. These are social introspection moments that make you laugh with a “hell no” as quickly as you say “OMG yes.”
This production of Gloria gets there 99 percent of the way. A resounding win for James Black, his cast, and 4th Wall Theatre Co. Let the disruption reign.
Gloria continues through April 16 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street, Studio 101. For more information, call 832-767-4991 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $16-$53.