Two moments of tender focus—one early in the show and one almost too late—hold together a slew of jostling vanities in CPT’s production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria, which opened March 29th. The play threatens to disintegrate, but never quite does, into a double handful of superficial themes about career, loneliness, trauma, and whatever we call media. Happily, Gloria is wiser than its smart and cynical characters: deep down it believes passionately in all the same authentic kindness and solidarity whose absence is lamented, constantly and unrelentingly, in all the conversations on stage.
The first of Gloria’s two saving moments is bright, surprising, and crystal-clear. Early in the extended first act of the show, on the cubicle desktop in the magazine office where they are ultra-junior assistants to culture editors, two women in their late twenties—bitchy, ceramic-sharp Kendra (Evangeline Zhiyi Han) and practical, doomed Ani (Sarah Maria Yannie)—cue up an iTunes track. They have just learned of the death by overdose of pop star Sarah Tweed. As a tinny version of Tweed’s signature anthem is piped into their workspace, the two millenials lapse into unified, relaxed nostalgia. Kendra has come since her teenage years from Pasadena to Harvard to become a denizen of each and every Manhattan Starbucks; Ani absorbs everything about everyone around her, has fallen very quietly in love with the beleaguered administrator down the hall, and is not above a pair of hot, fashionable red shoes. They start singing at the same moment.
Along with iTunes Ani and Kendra sing the pop song together, just a few bars, in the process gently taunting the two men in the room—who, of course, don’t remember what it feels like to love a song so much it feels like it’s carrying you through the solitude of being a teenager. These are real people singing, and at least for a moment (without looking at each other) they like each other. It’s just enough to tether the show’s first half to humanity.
Most of the rest of play keeps a steady distance from this moment of ease and melody. The world of Gloria is made of hard, flat mirrors. Jacobs-Jenkins insists his chosen characters are destined to traumatize each other, long-term, in an industry that (while making “culture” for the rest of us) prides itself on self-obsession. In the first act, the characters see themselves, in horror, reflected in each other’s eyes. The second act holds a cynical mirror up to the climactic moments of the first. And then, building on a cheap twist at the end of act two, the screw turns again: the third act, more cynically yet, parodies and sullies whatever creative strivings the second act might have found hopeful at a table in Starbucks.
The play’s title character, Gloria, is a person, and her crime supercharges the play with intensity—it brings trauma and echoing possibilities of fame. But in truth, it’s a terrific joke to call the play Gloria: it’s not named after her. It’s named after the things that were named after her and the things named after them. As a cultural phenomenon, Gloria is now identical with the scars her narcissistic colleagues eye fondly in the mirror. Her name is a brand, a marker of trauma rather than the thing itself. As the characters all say about themselves: “Gloria happened.” Thus the first book that a character plans to write about the play’s central incident is to be called Gloria, and the second—meant to be about others, not about Gloria—is also, inevitably, called Gloria. And obviously the ensuing movie, the TV series, and the play we are watching must also all be called Gloria, just because, and all without any particular interest in any person named Gloria. The mirrors all reflect each other, and there is no one left at the center.
Without the play’s two key moments of longing and connection, the characters of Gloria would be too much vanity to take during one evening of theatre. The showbiz rants that are so captivating and vivacious in Mamet, here, are just mean and memorized; the freedom and cleverness that go with the vain ambition of the publishing industry (think Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada) fail, somehow, to create any pleasure. This is a world without nourishment or sex, a spartan realm of workspace partitions, presented in detail but without ornament in the simplicity of CPT’s set design. Even when a character might feel she has scored a point against another, the audience gets no share in any verbal satisfaction. The sole physical delight in the entire two hours seems to be Kendra’s several-times-daily Starbucks run—a habit that happens to save her life when tragedy strikes others in her absence, leaving her with survivor’s guilt that makes it impossible for her to taste the coffee ever again without revulsion.
Gloria offers larger emotional satisfactions, but yanks them away with grim purpose. Poised and attentive, Yannie plays three apparently sane, gentle characters, one in each act, only to be (in sequence) victimized, exposed, and sidelined as a sap. And near the end of act two, Jacobs-Jenkins steps cruelly on a beautiful soliloquy by culture editor Nan (Sally Groth*). Pensively carrying heavy twins in Nan’s belly, Groth invites the audience into Nan’s self-regard and its surmounting, and invokes something legitimately unselfish. It’s an extended moment of intense authenticity—one that Jacobs-Jenkins first perverts (within a few seconds) into commerce, then mocks as sentimentality and self-promotion. Nothing big can stay good. For most of its characters most of the time, the world of Gloria is too boring to care about anything but being rich and/or famous, and giving (or pathetically failing to give) good parties.
But the small things matter, too. Appropriately for our nihilistic age, Gloria honors the world of authenticity in the person of the magazine’s head fact-checker, Lorin (Keith Kornajcik), who, talking mostly to himself, gives the only truly attentive speech of act one. He reappears in act three to create the play’s second moment of true connection, a male one, clumsy and unmediated by culture.
There is no music this time, no cultural common ground, and no nostalgia: the two characters involved in this second key moment are brought together because one of them is the IT guy, and the other is a temp. Unashamed and oddly strong, Lorin finds the space, somehow, to ask whether his colleague is willing to consider being his friend. A trader in facts, steeped in sadness, at this late moment Lorin nonetheless expresses the thing that Gloria believes in: “I’m trying,” he says, “to pay more attention to the people I am surrounded by all day long.”
For a second key moment here before cleverly undermining the sentiment, Jacobs-Jenkins anchors the play in the heart, just when it seemed about to drift away for good. The moment works. Michael Prosen—as the IT guy, but carrying in his powerful frame the traumatized character he played in acts one and two—lets Lorin’s idea sink in. Should people pay attention to each other? Why not? It’s horribly awkward, and it’s cleverly taken away in the play’s final moments, but this second moment of hope seems perfectly designed for the guys of our moment—bland guys with some interest in their work; no particular culture; and no clear past or future. For a moment only, the idea that they might be friends crystallizes: a simple, unlikely, and much-needed antidote to all the delicious poison that Gloria has to offer.
*Actor appears courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.