Wednesday, 10 June 2015

GLORIA by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Vineyard Theatre

     Two of the most intriguing plays of 2014 were Branden Jacobs-Jenkins APPROPRIATE and AN OCTOROON. Both dealt with the relationship of past and present. In APPROPRIATE the descendants of an old Southern family discover photos of lynchings in the family homestead. How will the whites in the present deal with these skeletons in the family closet? AN OCTOROON takes a nineteenth century popular melodrama about miscegenation and gives it a decidedly post-modern interpretation. GLORIA touches on race only tangentially, but still focuses on how we deal with the past, in this case a past trauma. It's witty and fascinating, but it offers a dark picture of the solipsism of its characters.
     Warning: it is difficult to write about this play without dropping spoilers. Suffice it to say that Gloria, a deeply unhappy, workaholic editor, sets everything in motion.
      The first act of the play offers us a picture of petty politics in an editorial office of a large magazine. The unseen editors are sequestered behind bulletproof glass or are working from home. We see their assistants, intern and one very unhappy fact checker. The young assistants compete with each other for the slim chance of advancement. Of course, they all dream of being authors. The intern, on the last day of his internship, doesn't see a future in the magazine business. The fact checker is exhausted and work down by his job. At the end of the scene, a horrible event takes place. The real focus of the play is on the aftermath of that event. Three of the survivors write books about the event with varying degrees of first-hand knowledge. The one person who witnessed it and survived is so traumatized that he can't finish his book. A fiercely ambitious woman, who was out at Starbucks at the time writes her version, which gets published. The most successful version is written by an editor who didn't actually see what happened. Her book gets picked up by a film studio. "It's my story," she says, but is it really? The fact checker, appropriately, is the only person who has a clear picture of Gloria, who actually is the focus of the horrible tragedy. When asked which star should play Gloria, he responds that if she came into the room, no one would even notice her. Who can play a part like that?
     Jacobs-Jenkins is a masterful craftsman. The play begins with a good deal of humor. It is difficult to see where he is leading us at first, but it's the aftermath of the climax of the first of three scenes that is important. The horror is in how people who didn't know or care about Gloria make her tragedy their own. Perhaps all writers do this--rob other people's stories, other people's tragedies. It's interesting that the person who feels the event most deeply ultimately can't finish his book.
     I saw an early preview of GLORIA and, though it was fine, Evan Cabnet's production could stand a bit of tightening, a clearer sense of tempo. That will no doubt come in time. The cast, all but one of whom play multiple roles, are uniformly excellent, particularly Ryan Spahn as the gay assistant editor who is frightened for his job but given demeaning tasks, and Michael Crane as the fact checker. Spahn is truly moving in his emotional breakdown in the second act. Crane's Lorin is most in touch with the nasty reality of the business he is in and the tragedy that ensues there. His long explosion in Act I is beautifully modulated. Everyone else demonstrates considerable virtuosity.
     GLORIA is not as powerful as APPROPRIATE nor as brilliant as AN OCTOROON, but it is the work of an important contemporary playwright and well worth seeing.    
GLORIA. Vineyard Theatre. June 8, 2015.

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