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After he was valedictorian of the Class of 2002 at St. John’s College High School here in Washington, but before his debut play Neighbors opened at the Public Theater in New York City eight years later, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins worked as an assistant in the fiction department at The New Yorker.
His startling 2015 play Gloria, now having its regional premiere at Woolly Mammoth, doesn’t name the venerable publication in whose midtown Manhattan offices its first half is set. But we can see the place is a pressure cooker populated by ambitious young Ivy Leaguers (Jacobs-Jenkins graduated from Princeton University) and panicked slightly less-young ones, each desperate to sell their book proposals and mortified they might not be as brilliant and/or lucky as the literary geniuses who preceded them in these dignity-swallowing jobs. (One of the silverback assistants has barely dragged himself to his desk before he is summoned to transport a trash bag of his boss’ vomit from her office to the bathroom.)
Jacobs-Jenkins was likely freed of such insecurities even before he got the phone call—and the first installment of the $625,000 grant—from the MacArthur Foundation formally recognizing him as a “genius” two years ago. No one who’d been following his career could have been surprised. His prior two shows to be staged at Woolly, 2013’s Appropriate and 2016’s An Octoroon, ruminated on the fallout of having built an ostensibly free country on slave labor. Gloria is about two more modern cancers: the proximity of deadly violence in a society where firearms are as abundant as people and the commodification of suffering. Race is a factor in this poisonous equation, too, but it’s not in the foreground of the story Jacobs-Jenkins is telling this time.
Gloria’s deceptive first hour is devoted to observing the gossip and backbiting endemic to any office of strivers. Justin Weaks plays a black intern in this mostly white workplace (Jacobs-Jenkins interned at The New Yorker before he was employed there) who wants his boss to get him a brief audience with the editor-in-chief on his final day. That boss, Dean (Conrad Schott), is hungover from a house party thrown by Gloria, where he’d wrongly calculated his colleagues would accompany him. Their reason for disliking Gloria seems to be that she’s had the same research department job for a long time. Her stagnation might not be contagious, but why take chances?
Another assistant, Kendra (Eunice Hong), is enraged that someone else has been assigned the obituary of a folk singer whose death has been reported that morning, and her tantrum mutates into a well-worn stump speech indicting the generation before hers for not “anticipating the internet,” not dying quickly enough, and ruining the New York City where “apartments cost like a dollar.” When she ascribes discriminatory motives to this latest slight, Dean points out that as a Harvard grad from Pasadena, she is “basically a white male” in societal advantage.
Jacobs-Jenkins is more discerning in his targeting than sitcom writers get to be, but the form of all this—sardonic workplace comedy—is familiar, which is why the climax of the first act is so powerful and the uneven quality of the performances doesn’t reveal itself until the second.
It’s set some months after the first, and the actors who haven’t been assigned new characters entirely—and Jacobs-Jenkins is crafty about the double casting, the way Caryl Churchill was in Cloud Nine, for example—are playing versions of their characters that have been changed, their ravenous careerism is now complicated by trauma and notoriety.
Kip Fagan, who returns to Woolly after directing 2016’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad, doesn’t have as steady a hand navigating the play’s tighter corners as An Octoroon director Nataki Garrett did. Weaks, Megan Graves, and Ahmad Kamal are all relaxed and believable, the latter playing a former fact-checker at the magazine who attempts a career change. As one of the magazine’s more senior assistants, Schott is saddled in act two with a laughably phony beard that interferes with the delicate work he’s trying to do. That’s an easy fix, and Fagan should fix it.
Hong and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan—who appears as Nan, the editor who was heard but not seen in the prior act—have an unsyncopated stridency in a pair of two-hander restaurant scenes in the play’s second half that muddy the piece’s satirical intention by making their characters seem individually malicious. But the final scene, set in the offices of a film and television production company in Los Angeles, corrects the balance, making Gloria the harsh look at the attention industry its author wants it to be rather than just a study of a few particularly unsavory people within it.
To Oct. 7 at 641 D St. NW. $20–$69. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.