Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s brilliant Gloria, now receiving its regional premiere at Curious Theatre, has been described as a black comedy. Plays in this genre usually feature a group of middle-class folks cleverly sparring over food and drinks until something explosive and dramatic occurs and they’re forced to drop their civilized veneer; the results are entertaining, though seldom deep or thought-provoking. For a while it looks as if Gloria is going to give us nothing more, even it the participants aren’t in someone’s living room but are underpaid interns at a prestigious magazine, uncertain about their futures in the way so many smart twenty-somethings are, boxed in by supervisors in their sixties, and spending their time putting each other down. (The playwright himself spent three years at the New Yorker, but he’s assured interviewers that Gloria doesn’t convey in-house gossip or reflect his own experience.)
Through most of the first act, the play is enjoyable in exactly the way I’d expect of a biting, cynical black comedy. Up to this point, there’s been no reason to care much the characters — nobody is very nice, everyone is striving for recognition and some vaguely defined success — so you don’t expect the distress and shock you feel when the unthinkable happens.
While this hideous act shatters complacency, Jacobs-Jenkins deals with its aftermath with such depth, intelligence and understanding that he proves himself a first-rate talent. The characters don’t change much.
Kendra, whose bitchiness dominated act one, is as nasty and manipulative as ever. Dean, who drank and partied while occasionally displaying a flicker of something resembling kindness, is still wavering and uncertain. We hadn’t met editor Nan before, though we’d heard her voice, and she turns out to be one of those rich, awful, superficially charming, “lean in” women. Almost all these people have realized that the tragedy they encountered might just provide their best shot at best-sellerdom. Who will come up with the winning formula? Who will stab whom in the back?
There’s a lot to ponder here about the way we commercialize tragedy. But there’s also something else, something about the way our culture prizes and rewards both navel-gazing and professions of victimhood. At the time of the catastrophe, Kendra was on one of her numerous Starbucks expeditions, and she didn’t see what happened. Dean was present and part of the action; he escaped harm for a highly significant reason. But he doesn’t seem to be enough of a shark to win this contest. Nan, powerful, older and established in the publishing world, had a flash of insight while hiding in terror under her desk, a realization — of course — about herself and her life. Will she win the battle of the book? Need you ask?
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But for all this semi-comic jockeying, Gloria doesn’t downplay the long-term trauma caused by murderous events. When fact-checker Lorin makes his first couple of appearances, you see him as a comic foil, rather like the ignored and neglected longtimer Milton Waddams in the movie Office Space (remember — the weirdly squeaky guy with the red stapler?), but he turns out to be something else entirely: a truth-teller, the sole employee with some integrity, the guy who understands to his bones — perhaps too well — the meaning of the tragedy. His dialogue is terrific, and the subtle way that Jacobs-Jenkins works him into the action is wonderful. It’s equally wonderful the way Brian Landis Folkins handles the role: incredibly funny in the early scenes, heartbreaking by the end.
Candace Joice is killer as both shy Gloria and self-assured Nan; Sydnee Fullmer is pleasantly self-effacing playing intern Ani, breathless groupie-type Callie and editor Sasha; Desirée Mee Jung is every bit as irritating as Kendra is supposed to be, and smooth as editor Jenna. This double and triple casting isn’t accidental, but carries ironic undertones, particularly in the three roles undertaken with some charm by Rakeem Lawrence: intern Miles, barista Shawn and hip television up-and-comer Rashaad, since the script has more than once referenced the difficulty of telling black people apart — or keeping white people straight, if you happen to be black.
Artistic director Chip Walton has made it his mission to introduce audiences to thought-provoking and boundary-pushing new work. With Gloria, he succeeds on every count.
Gloria, presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 16, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.