BWW Review: The Gamm's GLORIA Plays With Notions of Comedy and Tragedy
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins seems like a man who likes to make theatre audiences uncomfortable, and make them question their most basic reactions. Rhode Islanders will be familiar with his play Appropriate, which was at Trinity Rep in 2016, and may have left many scratching their heads in a "what did I just watch?" way. GLORIA, playing through December 16 at the Gamm is a similar head scratcher, but is remarkably well-executed with a strong cast and excellent direction. The mental gymnastics this play asks of the audience are confounding, and there are plenty of moments where the script feels manipulative, but the end result is satisfyingly perplexing in a way that's new.
The play takes place in the office of a magazine in Manhattan, around 2010. Things in the publishing industry are really starting to shift, and Dean (Jeff Church), Kendra (Jordan Clark) and Ani (Alison Russo) are young people trying to claw their way to the top of a decaying industry. The play is in two acts, with Act I ending in a tragic incident that informs the events of Act II. Act I is where we get to know these characters, most of whom are genuinely horrible people. Dean has a drinking problem and he lashes out at Kendra who comes to work late and then after fighting with Dean and taking an extended personal phone call, leaves to get coffee at Starbucks. Ani and Miles the intern (Marc Pierre) are more neutral characters. But Alison Russo seems a bit wasted in her role as Ani because her character is drowned out by the literal shouting of Dean and Kendra.
Jeff Church's portrayal of Dean is nicely measured. Even though he says some monsterous things and physically intimidates Kendra, you still get the impression that he's not all bad (amazingly), and Church's hints of vulnerability and self-doubt really help to create empathy for a character who doesn't seem like he deserves it. Jordan Clark's Kendra is an entitled brat who knows how to push Dean's buttons, and she's also ruthlessly ambitious and perfectly willing to throw anyone under the bus to move up the corporate ladder. Clark also manages to imbue her character with a little humanity, leaving the viewer to draw the conclusion that there's something about the combination of these two personalities that's just toxic.
Act II opens with Kendra and Dean meeting up in Starbucks for the first time since the incident. The office set is still visible above them, and the Starbucks is set up below, so it's as if their past is literally hanging over their heads. The sets, though they're minimal, are incredibly effective. There is a massive shift in tone and energy from Act I to II, and this is where the play really lobs the heavy questions at the audience. Who owns a tragedy? Do all survivors have a right to tell their own story, even though those stories are all inextricably linked? After something happens to you, that you might have prevented, how do you move past it?
What's particularly interesting is the use of the character Lorin (Gabriel Graetz), a fact-checker at the magazine who went through the same experience, but who has a very different reaction to it. When we first meet him, he's frustrated with a number of things, but at the end, he still has frustrations, but seems much better equipped to deal with them. He seems to represent that little bit of hope we all need to move on from a trauma and Graetz does a fantastic job of making this character the sane breath of fresh air the audience needs.
While this play contains some very serious themes and events, it's also laugh-out-loud hilarious in parts. The script balances the comedy and tragedy in a way that feels true to life, but amplified. Sometimes it feels like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a conductor dropping in sound cues to make the audience react in a very specific way, and that can be irritating. However, after seeing the whole picture, the choices make sense, and any frustration seems like something the playwright also intended. Moments of levity round out and help balance the seriousness of this mind twisting, well-done production.