Review: ‘Gloria’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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Director Kip Fagan opens this production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria with a clever conceit: Miles (Justin Weaks), an office intern, is at his desk, as the contrapuntal woodwinds and strings of a baroque ensemble playing fills the auditorium. He is soon joined by Ani (Megan Graves), an editorial assistant, at their shared island of desks in an open office. A chorus joins the orchestra, and soon Miles and Ani are performing their own two-part invention of packet stapling, paper shuffling, and keyboard tapping. Only then do we realize that we are experiencing the world through Miles’ earbuds. The musical selection is apt, as Jacobs-Jenkins is such a formalist that each of the play’s three acts can function as its own one-act play.

L-R: Conrad Schott, Justin Weaks, Megan Graves, and Eunice Hong in Gloria, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
L-R: Conrad Schott, Justin Weaks, Megan Graves, and Eunice Hong in Gloria, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

As the morning drags on, they are joined by two more editorial assistants. Dean (Conrad Schott) is just a few months shy of thirty, which means amongst the seemingly ambitious millennials whose desks his abuts, he is already seen as over-the-hill. He is hungover from having spent the evening at an unpopular coworker’s poorly attended housewarming party. Kendra (Eunice Hong) is the last to arrive. Chic in a leather jacket and heels, she does little in the way of discernible work and keeps her name out there by updating her Twitter and Instagram accounts while she spends her time away from her desk shopping at local boutiques or online at Starbucks. The editor she works under seems not to mind her lack of work ethic.

Their employer is a prestigious Midtown Manhattan-based magazine that spawned the careers of literary stars, and is now struggling to remain relevant in the internet era by diversifying into books, the web, and social media. Kendra diagnoses the company’s plight in generational terms: Baby Boomers put the periodical on the map, rose to senior positions, and never anticipated today’s new media landscape, leaving the millennials with little expectation of career advancement.

Generation X is left out of the equation – they probably aren’t mentioned on any of the blogs Kendra reads. The only Gen-Xers they know are Gloria, (played with an anxious shuffling by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) the neurotic copyeditor who never had a chance to move up in the organization and whose housewarming all but Dean skipped, now crushed to realize that after fifteen years in the workplace, she has no friends, and Nan, (also played by Keegan) the senior editor for whom Dean is on beck and call.

Such a setup may appear at first like the premise of a conventional workplace comedy – in particular, the many unsold television pilots and spec scripts that so often seem to get reworked as plays, but Jacobs-Jenkins – whose An Octoroon Woolly Mammoth produced in 2016 – subverts such convention. By the close of the first act, any semblance of a status quo has been blown away.

Woolly Mammoth has suggested that reviewers not detail the last moments of the first act, and this critic will honor that request, noting only the plot points that Woolly Mammoth has revealed on their website. By the time the audience heads to the lobby for intermission, the office comedy banter has been disrupted by a shockingly graphic depiction of gun violence – effectively designed by Fight Choreographer Robb Hunter.

In the months and years that follow, the surviving characters are not merely dealing with the trauma, but – in a darkly ironic twist foreshadowed by the first act’s satire on how the magazine is covering the death of a singer-songwriter moments before their offices become the site of their own story – with questions of who gets to tell that story. Is it a matter of who was most proximate to the horror? Who became the public face in the first few days of news coverage? Who claims to be the most emotionally impacted? Who is the most talented at stringing words together? Who has the most interesting angle? Or more cynically: is it a matter of who is best connected in the world of publishing and social media, and whether their version is the one that most excites film and television executives seeking to option the adaptation rights for a true-crime story?

Set Designer Misha Kachman has created a set of translucent glass corridors and perpendicular lines that evoke the new media aesthetic of a magazine so apparently aware of its industry’s implosion that it doesn’t have any of its covers on display, only to give way in the second act to an ersatz-authentic coffeehouse experience that Starbucks has placed on every other block in every city’s corporate district. Beyond the door, there is just a hint of Manhattan’s continual redevelopment. Sound Designer Tosin Olufolabi captures the sounds of office life: the coworkers compelled to share their music, the subjective experience of one’s own earphones – and the active shooter situation that one is given cursory training for but never expects.

Ahmad Kamal in Gloria, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Ahmad Kamal in Gloria, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The ensemble navigates the genre shifts of the script from witty workplace situation-comedy to the ever darker satire of industrialized storytelling. Each actor plays multiple roles – the exception being Ahmad Kamal as Lorin, the harried chief fact-checker, who is such an everyman that his coworkers can’t even make gossip fodder from him. Weaks, Schott, and Keegan, in particular, show the greatest range in terms of sculpting their different roles through physicality and rhythms of speech.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ career has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the last several years and he seems sufficiently aware that his good fortunes are unusual, that many equally talented writers have not had similar success, and that similar success has come to many less talented writers. Most importantly, he is willing to note that the sausage-making behind an acclaimed story is not just an ugly business but one in which the raw material is a pile of corpses – whether or not the sausage-maker’s fingers pulled the trigger.

Running time: Two hours, with an intermission.

Gloria plays through September 30, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the venue or order online.

See John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column  about Gloria.

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Ian Thal
Ian Thal recently moved back to Washington, D.C. after a many-year-long sojourn in the Boston area where he was Senior Contributor and theater critic for The Arts Fuse. He has also written for The Clyde Fitch Report and served as Community Editor for The Jewish Advocate. He was an invited guest of the Kosovo Writers' Union after some of his poetry was translated into Albanian. He was honored for his work teaching mime and commedia dell'arte performance to young people by the Massachusetts Senate. Ian holds both an MA and BA in Philosophy from Boston College and SUNY Purchase and is a playwright with many strange ideas of what belongs on stage.

1 COMMENT

  1. I must say, I’m quite disappointed that I read this review before seeing the play. You write that the critic will “honor” Woolly’s request, and yet, you give away the most pivotal point of the first act (and indeed the whole play) and how it ends.

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