Another goodie from super-smart American Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, author of the brilliant 'An Octoroon'
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is taking London. The American’s earlier play, 'An Octoroon', is enjoying an extended run at the Orange Tree Theatre, he's got a commission for Nick Hytner's Bridge Theatre, and before that 'Gloria' arrives with a strut.
A fast-talking, cynical look at office politics and the culture of creative ambition, 'Gloria' isn’t in the same league as 'An Octoroon' when it comes to formal experimentation; it sits comfortably in Hampstead Theatre’s regular diet of talky American dramas. But the dialogue is super-smart, it’s crisply funny in its relentless skewering of the pettiness and pretentions of a bunch of journalists, as well as offering – after a plot swerve I’ll try not to totally spoil – a more profound look at the way traumatic experiences may be packaged up and sold to the highest bidder.
Gloria is set in the offices of a beleaguered New York magazine. The privileged twenty-something employees snipe and sneer; there’s a relentless ambition for bylines and book deals, a desperation to get out – or at least get one over on your colleagues. The cast of Michael Longhurst's production are uniformly great: Ellie Kendrick is perfect as Ani, the 'pretty nerd' whose sweetness is tempered with a knee-jerk faux-friendliness. Kae Alexander is appropriately appallingly as Kendra, the snarking, self-promoting rich kid, who spars with Dean, a half-decent guy who drinks too much and is terrified he’s wasting away his life (admittedly, the sympathy does stretch thin at times…) He may be a bit of an smart asshole, but at least Dean – played with weariness but also warmth and wit by Colin Morgan – did actually show up to painfully empty party held by the office weirdo, Sian Clifford's creepily intense Gloria...
The decline of print journalism provides a ripe setting – 'why does it feel like we’re on the freaking Titanic?' moans Kendra – and Jacobs-Jenkins is excellent on the cruel, cannibalistic cycles journalism, publishing and TV are spiraling into. Still, it is another play about endlessly, irredeemably cynical people, rapaciously using their lives as saleable, marketable content – think a less weird version of 'The Treatment', if it was written by Aaron Sorkin.
And for all the play has its explosive moment, the second half fails to really move things on: different conversations, same whiff of bullshit.
This is enhanced by the doubling of actors (with deliberately dodgy wigs), giving a vague sense of déjà vu. Still, if it’s a disheartening view of the way capitalism chews up human experience, and basic humanity with it, 'Gloria' is always sharply entertaining too.