If we take Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's 2015 off-Broadway hit Gloria as an accurate satirical reflection of the contemporary American white-collar workplace—and much of the critical praise heaped on it insists we should—the new normal in cubicleland is cynical solipsism, unfocused ambition, and millennial entitlement. Gone entirely, at least in the office of the unnamed New York magazine where the play is set, are collegiality, decorum, purpose, and any semblance of work ethic. Everyone just wants to get ahead without knowing what getting ahead might look like.
I imagine such toxic work environments exist, although Jacobs-Jenkins doesn't portray that toxicity especially convincingly. In fact, I'd bet many of us would gladly work in this office. For the entire first act of this Goodman production (which is, curiously, a wholesale import of the original staged by New York's Vineyard Theatre), none of the handful of twentysomethings works for longer than ten seconds at a stretch. Nor do they act on the ambition they allegedly possess. Mostly they gossip, gripe, snipe, and grandstand with abandon—and without so much as a “Could you keep it down?” from the boss seated in the adjoining office. It's postgraduate day care. Yet we're asked to empathize with Lorin, the head fact-checker, when he moans that the office “sucks your soul out of you.”
But even if this portrayal, with attendant familiar criticisms of media and celebrity culture, amounts to verisimilitude, it's all dramatically irrelevant.
That's because Jacobs-Jenkins completely changes the terms of his play just before intermission. [There are spoilers in what follows.] Act one ends with a horrific bit of violence, and from there the comparatively more interesting second act focuses entirely on the survivors' attempts to understand, package, and ultimately profit from the tragedy. Book and TV deals loom. And fate is cruel: editorial assistant Dean, who was smack in the middle of the carnage, is so traumatized he can hardly set pen to paper, while top editor Nan, who saw nothing, ends up with a major production deal. The main thrust, laid in none too subtly, is that a self-centered, mercantile culture turns tragedy into cutthroat opportunism.
But the forces that create a market for trauma porn—and Jacobs-Jenkins's uncomplicated criticisms of them—have nothing to do with the state of the American white-collar workplace. If the horror unfolded at a bowling alley or an auto-body shop—or a happy, collegial publishing co-op, for that matter—the results might easily be the same. Jacobs-Jenkins starts one play and finishes another, leaving neither adequately developed.
Director Evan Cabnet has a winning cast and ingenious designers at his disposal, making this discursive, intermittently poignant evening quite entertaining. If only it had more to say. v