‘Gloria’: A shocking tragicomedy of contemporary white collar workplace mores
From left, Steven Strobel, Alana Dietze, Devere Rogers, Jenny Soo, Michael Sturgis / Darrett Sanders

LOS ANGELES—In Mel Brooks’s 1987 Star Wars parody, called Spaceballs, the character Yogurt reveals the true secret of success in Hollywood—and by inference, in life: “Moichandising! Moichandising! Where the real money from the movie is made. Spaceballs: the T-shirt, Spaceballs: the Coloring Book, Spaceballs: the Lunchbox, Spaceballs: the Breakfast Cereal! Spaceballs: the Flame Thrower!” (Thanks to Bill Citron for that reference.)

I don’t believe our readers will have any trouble recognizing Yogurt’s truth. Even more so than 30 years ago, “branding” is the name of the game today.

Gloria is a relatively minor character whom we only see spectrally a very few times in the play that bears her name. Yet by the end of the second act there’s already been a published memoir about her and another one left uncompleted, plus a new one that promises to be more of an investigation into the “meaning” of Gloria, and gads of hot new media platform versions of her story. The film (“based on a true story”) is already in the works, and that, of course, will help to sell more books (“as seen in the star-studded film”). It’s all quite incestuous. I’m not sure about the breakfast cereal, but the flame thrower wouldn’t surprise me.

Written by the Brooklyn-based 2016 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, now 33, Gloria was a Pulitzer Prize finalist after it debuted Off-Broadway at New York City’s Vineyard Theatre in May 2015. His plays Appropriate and An Octoroon received the 2014 OBIE Award for Best New American Play, and the New York Times wrote that he “has established himself as one of the country’s most original and unsettling dramatists.”

Gloria is now receiving its West Coast premiere by the Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village, an area of Los Angeles near Glendale. The play features disturbing adult content and strong violence, and may not be suitable for audiences under the age of 17. With that said, I found it among the strongest plays I’ve seen so far this season, a kind of white-collar version of the blue-collar Sweat downtown at the Mark Taper Forum. To miss its tale that is so revelatory about the soulless ambition that stalks the land, and that so exemplifies the razor-sharp, darkly comic dramatic writing by this young author, would be a regrettable loss while it’s still playing (through October 21).

Act I introduces us to a trio of editorial assistants in their twenties, Ani (Alana Dietze), Dean (Michael Sturgis) and Kendra (Jenny Soo), working poorly paid, low-level jobs at a prestigious New York magazine that is unnamed, except that we know the playwright put in a stint of several years’ duration toiling at a cubicle at The New Yorker. They each aspire to a celebrity literary career and a book deal before they turn 30. A fourth character, Miles (Devere Rogers), is an African-American intern at the magazine whose college professor thought this would be an eye-opening first step on the ladder for him.

The atmosphere surrounding the four little desks where they work is nothing short of toxic, with personality differences, office warfare, professional jealousy and rivalry, irregular work habits, too much caffeine, and thick ethnic tension. Each one reports to a superior in the strict pecking order—the unseen Nan (Jessica Goldapple) has her office just behind the tinted opaque glass at stage rear. (Goldapple also portrays the peculiar eponymous character Gloria.) A final character is Lorin (Steven Strobel) from down the hall, who enters more than once to complain about the loud voices and and music from the cubicle office that are exasperatingly intruding on his serious work as a fact-checker. The environment is primed for a major breakdown.

It’s apparent that the superiors are also carrying on their own internecine competition for sizzling stories. The one that flashes across the computer screens today is the sudden overdose death of a popular singer, about whom the magazine, newly bought out by a megacorporation, intends to promote a major exploitative feature revealing her sexuality. This toney magazine is really just one or two undergraduate degrees above the salacious popular fare found at supermarket checkout aisles—and getting more market-driven all the time as print fades and digital media rises supreme.

“I was writing,” the playwright says, “about a group of people whose job is to…decide what’s newsworthy or not…what lives have value or not….”

As the audience settles in, the sound system (by Christopher Moscatiello) enthralls us with gorgeous baroque choral music—the “Gloria” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s B-minor Mass completed in 1749, the year before his death, and not heard complete in the composer’s lifetime. This magnificent work is a cornerstone of Western civilization, contrasting significantly with the far less durable commercially viable pablum the ever-ravenous media machine churns out week after week. Miles sits at his desk lost in the “Gloria” on his headphones.

The playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

The sublime B-minor Mass commemorates the life and death and transfiguration of Jesus, so it too is a cultural artifact seeking to make sense of tragedy—substantially more elevated in art and tone than what the magazine publishes, but in essence not so different. The arts—music, books, internet stories, even vicariously experiencing other people’s catastrophes—provide some of the ways we have found to process and understand the tragic human condition.

The day that starts out like any other suddenly turns shockingly violent, and it doesn’t take long—just the intermission time between acts 1 and 2, when some of the actors portray new and different characters as the plot unfolds—before the hounds start circling around the story. Who will tell it? Who will get the book contract? The rights? The Hollywood treatment? And how much money can be squeezed out of it?

In the end, it’s the playwright Jacobs-Jenkins whose story about the story is the most trenchant commentary of all. (Will a film come out of this play? I wonder.)

Chris Fields, artistic director of the Echo, convincingly directs this biting, courageous contemplation of the ways we have conditioned ourselves to be fame-seekers every one, to enjoy our fifteen minutes while we can. At least there is one character, who presents as more or less the moral compass of the play, who seems to want to abandon the rat race and find a personal, unmediated intentionality in life. Fields says that one value in the play is “the very real and difficult struggle to maintain our humanity.”

Gloria plays on Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, Sun. at 4 pm, and Mon. at 8 pm through Oct. 21. Mon. night performances are $20 in advance, and Pay-What-You-Want at the door (subject to availability). Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Ave. in Los Angeles 90039. Parking is free in the Atwater Xing lot half a block south of the theater. For reservations and information, call (310) 307-3753 or go to www.EchoTheaterCompany.com.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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