I won’t divulge anything surrounding the moment on which everything turns in “Gloria,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s blistering tragicomedy about the traumas we go through and how messy the question becomes of who gets to recount them in our voracious, everything’s-about-me society.
A withholding of information is especially apt, given Jacobs-Jenkins’s astute treatment of this issue and the temptation your friends who see the Woolly Mammoth Theatre production will harbor to spill the play’s intriguing plot. So tell your friends to zip it until you, too, have the chance to sample what this ingeniously mischievous playwright — author of the previous Woolly hits “An Octoroon” and “Appropriate” — has in store on this occasion.
And that is, on the one hand, a giddily scathing sendup of office politics among the rude mechanicals at an elite New York magazine: the interns and assistants assigned to dash out to Starbucks and perform all manner of scut work for the self-regarding editors and managers they desperately want to replace. It turns out the devil not only wears Prada, she also reads Esquire. On the other hand, “Gloria” is a contemplation of a strange industry that has flourished in our media culture, one that monetizes anguish and seeks to feed greedily on the remembrances of anyone who goes through hell — or purports to.
Jacobs-Jenkins trains a jaundiced eye on this culture, beginning with a funny first act among a backstabbing group of overeducated 20-somethings. They are assembled at desks in an office bullpen — realistically rendered by set designer Misha Kachman — in a way that reminds you of horses tethered to hitching posts. All manifest their servile discontent by turning on each other: Dean (Conrad Schott), a duplicitous suck-up; Ani (Megan Graves), a sweet-faced trouble-stirrer, and Kendra (Eunice Hong), an over-caffeinated ambition machine who mourns for the days when top jobs more reliably opened up “because people actually died back then. It was called turnover.”
The title, though, derives from the play’s sorriest character, a longtime worker played to disturbing effect by the excellent Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan. (The cast, under Kip Fagan’s sterling direction, is uniformly strong; it also includes Justin Weaks, playing Miles, a reticent intern who seems poised for success, and Ahmad Kamal as Lorin, the magazine’s hapless chief fact-checker.) Anyone familiar with life in an office will recognize Gloria as that anxious oddball whom no one takes seriously, who by virtue of an off-putting manner ends up being treated rather callously.
Yet “Gloria” is anything but a deep psychological dive into her character. In both the earlier plays of his that Woolly mounted so well, Jacobs-Jenkins built his stories around racial matters: in “Appropriate,” through a portrait of a white Southern family that discovers its deceased patriarch was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; in “An Octoroon,” by reimagining a 19th-century slave play as a satire on contemporary identity politics. But central to both dramas was an authorial awareness of how audiences seem to care passionately not only about whose story is given voice but also who is granted agency to voice it.
That preoccupation — along with a delightfully omnipresent, biting wit — emerges again in “Gloria.” The literary aspirations that animate Jacobs-Jenkins’s young strivers, ambitions that in Act 1 seem amusing and benign, become twisted, even sick, in Act 2. The opportunities that arise, to compete for the attention of the publishers and production companies that now want their stories, are corrupting, not ennobling. In the end, it’s not sincerity, or even truth, that matters, in the question of who gets to share their experience. It’s simply who’s got the best pitch.
You’ll be unsettled by “Gloria,” perhaps even haunted. The ghosts this playwright wants you to sense are hovering all around the theater, reminding us of a parasitic human penchant for getting the last word — and profiting from it.
Gloria , by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Kip Fagan. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Kelsey Hunt; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Tosin Olufolabi; fight choreography, Robb Hunter; production stage manager, John Keith Hall; dramaturge, Olivia Haller. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $20 (for patrons younger than 30)- $69. Through Sept. 30 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. woollymammoth.net or 202 -393-3939.