Don’t call Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria a play with a plot twist. The first act may wrap with a revelation, but it’s not a twist—it’s an assault on your expectations that roughly teleports the play from the workplace-comedy genre into a disturbing, less-knowable realm.
Produced by Profile Theatre, Gloria is a combustible mix of wit and wrath—a combination of moods the company has perfectly captured. It’s a profoundly unsettling play—figurative and literal trigger warnings are warranted—but thanks to the commitment of the cast and director Josh Hecht, its portrait of vicious violence and chilling callousness is as mesmerizing as it is sickening.
Gloria introduces us to Ani (Brenan Dwyer), Kendra (Akari Anderson) and Dean (Nick Ferucci). They are assistants at a Manhattan magazine but often ignore their work so they can gossip about Gloria (Foss Curtis), the office outcast, and belittle an intern named Miles (Gerrin Mitchell), whose duties include fetching Vitaminwater for Dean and a Luna Bar for Kendra.
While currents of nastiness crackle between the characters, the first act is comfortably entertaining. The magazine is a miserable place to work, but it’s also a hub of reliably entertaining insults, like Kendra’s snarky declaration that Ani could go to “computer school, brain school, or wherever pretty nerds go.”
Verbal brutality gives way to physical viciousness when a sudden tragedy rips apart the lives of Ani, Kendra, Dean, Miles and many others. The rest of the play is devoted to the aftermath, starting with a confrontation between Dean and Kendra in a Starbucks and ending with a scene set at a Los Angeles film company where Lorin (John San Nicholas), a former fact checker for the magazine, is temping.
Jacobs-Jenkins has said that Gloria was partly inspired by his days working in a cubicle at The New Yorker, but the play is too fast-paced to capture the awkwardness and tedium that often characterizes office life. It’s more successful as a study of how human beings exploit atrocities for personal gain, especially when Dean and Kendra pitch dueling book proposals about their experiences at the magazine.
Despite Gloria’s moral outrage at its characters, it rests on unsteady ethical ground. Profile’s website warns that the play contains gun violence, but Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t recognize the full implications of that violence. He uses a gun to propel the story forward without meaningfully addressing the issue of gun control, which makes as much sense as obsessing over a tree’s branches while ignoring its roots.
It’s also troubling that Jacobs-Jenkins is noticeably kinder to the play’s men than he is to its women. For all their flaws, Dean and Lorin are the only characters who believably convey compassion, whereas Ani, Kendra and a writer named Nan (Curtis) serve as manifestations of the play’s apparent belief that some people are incapable of seeing grief as anything more than currency.
The most forgiving interpretation of this trend is that Jacobs-Jenkins is valiantly defending a woman’s right to play a character without a trace of niceness. If that was his intention, it’s a boon to Anderson, who leans into Kendra’s cruel catchphrases—”schmoozers become boozers,” her assessment of Dean’s networking, is particularly memorable—with impressively suave bravado that makes the character difficult to completely despise.
No one infuriates Kendra more than Dean and no actor matches Anderson’s charisma like Ferucci. The exquisite vulnerability of his performance recalls his portrayal of a gay Mormon in The Falls movie trilogy, especially during the emotionally lacerating Starbucks scene, where Dean and Kendra’s already fractious relationship turns toxic.
As Kendra mocks Dean, Ferucci’s leg vibrates with jittery force. You feel both the actor and the character stockpiling energy for a climactic blast of fury, but without the calculations that cloud so many performances. In Ferucci’s hands, Dean’s rage at Kendra feels raw and real—and more convincing than the play’s attempts at social commentary.
You could dismiss Gloria, which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as nothing more than a problematic play, but that would do a disservice to Jacobs-Jenkins. He stumbles because he dares to trek across intellectually perilous terrain, admirably trusting the actors and the audience to follow him even when the journey haunts the soul. It’s an act of artistic faith that is rewarded beautifully by Profile’s production.
SEE IT: Gloria plays at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., 503-242-0080, profiletheatre.org/gloria. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through Jan. 30. $35.