We can all scratch “Get a job in the publishing industry” off of our list of life goals.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria begins at an unnamed New York magazine, and as usual the Goodman sets tell a story of their own. A pod of four cubicles sits center stage surrounded by offices isolated by closed doors and fogged glass. The offices belong to the editors; the cubicles belong to their assistants. The message is clear—privacy is one component of status.
Prior to seeing Gloria, I was skeptical as to whether a show based on the publishing industry would be worthy of its status as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for 2016 (fyi: the winner was an obscure musical about America’s founding fathers). We all know that publishing is cut-throat, but could this backdrop provide ideas that would speak universally to audiences? The answer is an extremely gratifying Yes. Jacobs-Jenkins’ script explores generation divides in the modern workforce in a way that has kept me thinking more than a week after the show.
The cast of six actors were all transplanted from New York’s Vinyard for this Chicago premier. The most prominent characters in the first act are three editorial assistants—the quiet observer Ani (Catherine Combs), the scathing Kendra (Jennifer Kim), and the aging Dean (Ryan Spahn), who will soon be an ancient 30 years old. As the play opens, Ani has been at work for an hour while Dean staggers in an hour late with a hangover. Kendra will not appear for another 15 minutes, and being late does not stop her from announcing that she will soon be making a run to Starbucks.
Many of Jacobs-Jenkins most thought-provoking ideas are presented through Kendra, who burns with ambition but is never seen doing any work. Kendra is lazy—one believes that she would work day and night to step on the heads of any that stand in her path. The reality is that Kendra does not have any work to do, and for the most part neither do Dean or Ani even though they are more interested in pretending to be busy. Perhaps back in the day editorial assistants at this magazine were important, but in 2016 computers and the Internet have simplified so many tasks that they are now glorified personal assistants. The tasks they are asked to do range from creating work for the intern Miles (Kyle Beltran) to, in Dean’s case, nursing his editor Nancy through a vomiting spell.
Thus is the plight that Jacobs-Jenkins creates in the first act of Gloria. Candidates from Ivy League colleges fight for these jobs that pay below the poverty line so they can get one foot in the door, but progression after that first step is based more on chance than talent. As a result, Dean spent the entire previous night at his co-worker Gloria’s (Jeanine Serralles) house-warming party in hopes that some higher-ups might attend, and at work Kendra embarrasses herself by criticizing another editorial assistant’s work without knowing some important details. With so few promising opportunities, no wonder the characters refer often to those that have left the magazine to enter the world of “self-publishing.”
For the Goodman, marketing Gloria is a conundrum because the entire play centers on a twist at the end of the first act. Revealing the twist would diminish the play, but not revealing the twist hinders any attempt to fully articulate why Gloria is a must-see experience that transcends far beyond the points I have discussed. Like the Goodman marketing team, I hope that word of mouth along with a peaked curiosity about this twist will be enough to draw in those who might not be sold by the concept. If nothing else, Gloria will make you think, “Well, I guess my job isn’t so bad,” as you make your way to the exit.*
*That statement, “Well, I guess my job isn’t so bad,” must be attributed to the man sitting next to me at the performance. Notably, he has worked in the public sector for 40 years reviewing Illinois mental institutions for accreditation purposes. He may have snored a little during the first act, but his first statement to me following the curtain call perfectly expressed a collective feeling from the audience.