Asolo Repertory Theatre offers both some of the best theater we've seen in a long time and a completely unsatisfying ending.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Gloria” is a brilliant play. (That doesn’t put it beyond criticism. We’ll get back to that.) To complicate matters, the brilliant playwright has something up his sleeve. There’s a surprise, a mousetrap, a sudden revelation, a twist! Maybe something good, maybe something bad …
The playwright asks critics to keep his secret to themselves. Spoiling the show isn’t a critic’s job. So, unless you see the play, you’ll never know.
Forget the twist. What’s left?
What remains — at least in the first act — is a lampoon of contemporary publishing. The action unfolds in the offices of a glossy national magazine based in New York City. (This caricature strongly resembles The New Yorker, although the playwright denies it’s his specific target.)
It’s an ugly portrait. Gripping. And oddly familiar.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ barbed word play reminds me of two strange bedfellows: Neil LaBute, the acid-tongued playwright, and Robert A. Heinlein, the curmudgeonly science-fiction writer.
LaBute’s influence scorches the stage in the characters’ vitriolic infighting. Imagine the verbal gut-punches of “Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” transposed to a magazine office. You really feel the hate.
The Heinlein effect takes the floor in the long-distance soliloquies. (Although these young professionals are theoretically “working,” they out-monolog your typical Bond villain.) Kendra (Delphi Borich) tops the bill with her 15-minute rant on “Why I Hate Baby Boomers.” Their key fault? They’re not dead yet. Along with sucking up valuable oxygen, they take up precious publishing jobs that millennials could better perform. Kendra also blames Boomers for the lack of jobs. As “Mad Man” has taught us, the well-paid “creatives” of the not-so-great generation partied too hard. Thanks to their drug-and-sex-induced stupor, the Internet snuck up on them. As a result, print is dying, Boomers refuse to die, and millennials get the scraps. Boo-hoo.
In true Heinlein style, the brutally eloquent Kendra sounds like the playwright’s mouthpiece. (Just guessing, folks. I don’t claim to be a mind-reader.)
Age wars aside, this unhappy workplace rings true. The incendiary first act delivers a well-drawn portrait of a sick corporate culture. But the playwright writes no prescriptions for the sickness. Towards the end of the play, he hints that a little kindness, self-awareness and empathy couldn’t hurt. But it’s only a hint.
Kindness is good, sure. The second act has much more meat to it than that. But I can’t sink my teeth into it without giving away the big surprise.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Gloria” is a glorified sucker-punch. Director Greg Leaming hews closely to its audience-pummeling strategy. Tone is a big part of the fake-out. The play rips up the implied contract with the audience. It scrambles the various cues that telegraph either comedy or tragedy. Leaming’s direction honors this misdirection, so expect the unexpected. (If you can’t stand the suspense, check out the “Gloria” page on the Asolo Rep website.)
The actors are all on their A-game. (Most play multiple characters, so we’ll stick with the main roles.) Aleksandr Krapivken’s Dean is a knot of ambition and frustration; he’s stuck in a job he thought would be a fun diversion after college. (And writing a novel, of course.) Borich’s Kendra gleefully pours salt on his wounds — and everybody else’s. Denise Cormier is sympathetically creepy as Gloria, the titular office outcast. Wes Tolman’s Lorin is a burned-out fact-checker who checks the other fact checkers. Jenny Vallancourt’s Ani is a bright-eyed assistant with a bright future ahead of her. Bryce Michael Wood’s Miles is an intern in a world of his own, thanks to headphones. His future looks bright, too. He figures it won’t be in publishing.
Tracy Dorman’s costumes evoke a dress-for-success ethos in a workforce that thinks it’s going nowhere. Michael Pasquini’s lighting has the surreal clarity of slightly overexposed film. Despite a few technical difficulties on opening night, Reid Thompson’s turntable set is damn clever. It’s either a sterile office or a Starbucks, depending on the turn of the wheel. Love it.
The wheel makes its final turn. Where does it stop?
Despite its brilliance, “Gloria” is unsatisfying. The first act is some of the best theater I’ve seen in a long time. The second act feels like a rough draft—or a series of unconnected scenes. You say you want a resolution? Don’t get your hopes up.
The ending isn’t even an ending. The play simply stops. It’s an arbitrary cut-off — as brutally unexpected as the ten seconds of blackness that capped “The Sopranos.” The playwright leaves you with a tangle of loose threads. And never ties them together.
That’s intentional. While not being a mind reader, I say that with confidence. In Jacobs-Jenkins’ own words: “The play denies resolution on a narrative level.” Well, yes, it does. It’s a gutsy artistic choice. A car with square wheels would also be a gusty engineering choice. That doesn’t mean you can drive it.
Bottom line? “Gloria” is an experimental play. Not all experiments work. (Buy a ticket and decide for yourself.) Whether it works or not, “Gloria” takes you to the ragged edge.
You may not be satisfied. But you will never be bored.