This Pulitzer-nominated play by one of America's most exciting writers gets its Australian premiere at Melbourne Theatre Company
Australia doesn’t really have an equivalent to The New Yorker, even if certain local literary journals would like to claim the space. From its inception in 1925, it’s prided itself on a very specific kind of cultural expression: erudite, liberal and impeccably informed. It’s a good description of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Gloria, which takes place in the offices of an unnamed magazine suspiciously like The New Yorker, where the playwright once worked.
The play begins as it means to end, as a droll workplace comedy – although to say it takes a shocking and circuitous route back on itself is to undersell it. This is a work that manages to fold in a number of hot-button topics without ever losing its sense of purpose, which is to hold up a mirror to our terrifying capacity to make other people’s tragedies all about us.
Gloria (Lisa McCune), who’s been at the magazine for 15 years, is the “office freak” for reasons that shift and falter depending on who’s providing them; it’s because she’s socially awkward, or “emotionally manipulative”, or maybe just not ambitious enough in a world that holds ambition above all qualities. She’s invited everyone to her housewarming, but of the office young bloods that include Ani (Jane Harber), Dean (Jordan Fraser-Trumble) and Kendra (Aileen Huynh), only Dean shows up.
The play’s first act is initially a bit of a slow burn, as the Gen-Y copy slaves bicker and bitch, and the young intern Miles (Callan Colley) takes it all in. The quotidian office politics feel almost over-familiar: those of us who work in offices will feel like they’re at work, and those of us who don’t will wonder why anyone can stand it for an hour, let alone a day. But Jacobs-Jenkins has far more on his mind than corporate satire, and the act ends in a genuinely shocking and irrevocable coup de theatre that upends all that has gone before. It’s the next two acts that really cement the playwright’s talent, as the aftermath of tragedy – and the ways that tragedy can be spun to the benefit of the so-called victims – begins to open out.
Director Lee Lewis has quite the task on her hands; she has to wrestle with a tone that is both jokey and deadly serious, and a bunch of characterisations that range from realistic to cartoonish, without pushing too far into either corner. A couple of the actors manage this shift beautifully: Harber’s Ani is brilliantly drawn, both sharp and wistful, and her ditsy Callie is pitch perfect. McCune nails both her ashen Gloria and the effortless self-assurance of Nan, the editor with an idea of her own. And Peter Paltos, the only actor to play a single role, is fantastic as Lorin, the compassionate heart of the play; his cri de coeur in the first act is a masterpiece of office ennui.
The other actors are by no means bad, but their shifts aren’t always as smooth or convincing. Fraser-Trumble is very good as the shaky Dean, his anguish churning just below the surface, but his stoner Devin is an easy caricature, and Huynh and Colley are likewise hampered by a tendency to overact in their third act roles. Both are at their best in the second act, which takes place in a Starbucks, and is by far the finest scene in the play.
Christina Smith’s sets are deceptively ingenious; the magazine offices are suitably soulless, impersonal and cavernous, but then the third actoffice is bland and oppressive in its own way. Only the second act Starbucks set has any real warmth – which, given the massive corporate behemoth this represents, is more than a little ironic. Paul Jackson’s lighting design aids this effect immeasurably.
Jacobs-Jenkins is an important theatrical voice in America – his 2014 play An Octoroon was recently named among the New York Times 25 Best American Plays since Angels in America – and Gloria is a terrific introduction to his work. It’s a play that has much to say about the way we consume information, in particular tragic information, in our contemporary world, and the emotional effect this has on our relationships. It’s the second time in a row that MTC’s Sumner Theatre has hosted a work with an international focus that still manages to speak savagely about our own world, about our own foibles and insecurities. It’s as enlightening as a subscription to The New Yorker itself.