“The Women’s Marches were dismissed by critics as an exercise in pop cultural zeitgeist, a flash of positive dissent with an important message, maybe. But certainly not a sustainable movement with a defined platform. Resistance should have more to say than #NotMyPresident, right?
But what if that’s wrong? What if the POTUS and his cast of cartoon villains are so dangerously backward and un-American on so many issues that the mere rejection of them is enough to bring us together? For the love of all that’s holy, I’ve found myself in agreement with the likes of Dick Cheney and George Will in recent days. Genuine fear for the country makes strange bedfellows. Maybe Trump is just the perverse jolt we needed to step away from the monitors, to be present and communal for our personal politics.”
During the whip-smart first half of “Gloria,” Lorin (Michael Crane), a 37-year-old Head Fact Checker at a wheezing New York-based magazine, laments his state of living. Bored with a time consuming, dead-end job, surrounded by malcontents and suspicious that this may be all there is, Lorin opines that death must be not only sweet relief, but one’s first (and presumably only) opportunity to be noticed.
Such bitterness and cynicism permeates “Gloria,” a misanthropic look at two 21st Century workplace threats: technological displacement and disgruntled colleagues. A 2016 Pulitzer Prize-finalist from MacArthur Foundation Fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the work strikes an engrossing balance between shock and familiarity that will necessarily follow audience members out of the Albert Theatre.
Directed by Evan Cabnet, who also helmed Goodman’s funny, disquieting and resonant 2013 production, “Teddy Ferrara,” this iteration of “Gloria” benefits from the original cast of the off-Broadway mounting. The syncopated performers know the material — and each other — which permits the script’s caustic humor to spew forth organically. Because absurdity and the fragility of life can be damned funny.
Press materials accessibly describe the plot as a meditation on Millennial office politics. “A group of ambitious twenty-somethings at one of New York’s most esteemed cultural magazines are pursuing it all — style status and success. When a seemingly normal day at the office turns out to be anything but, these aspiring journalists recognize an opportunity to seize a career-defining moment.”
I suppose that sketch is handy, but Jacob-Jenkins’ material is so much richer than convenient tropes. Suppose, as the opportunistic Kendra (a glorious Jennifer Kim) offers, that the slow destruction of print media and journalism can be blamed on factors beyond the monolithic growth and presence of the Internet. What if New York City’s famous gentrification and unaffordability is rooted in more than real estate trends and urban scarcity?
“Gloria” asks us to consider the possibility that the Yuppies and Baby Boomers who indulged, slacked and ennuied their way through the Me Decade and the Dot Com Boom, ruined socioeconomic and media career opportunity for everyone born after 1985. More than just provocative story material, the controversial idea is supported by a growing body of academic research pointing fingers in the direction of the post-World War II generation. A quick Google search yields article titles such as “Baby Boomers are Ruining the Entire World” and “Baby Boomers Ruined America: Why Blaming Millennials is Misguided.”
If the children of the Greatest Generation gobbled upward mobility and meritocracy like so many swarming corporate locusts, what’s left for today’s workers? Squeezed by low wages and high costs of living, teased by an American Dream displaced by continuous insecurity, mental health and self-esteem are increasingly difficult to balance. And the script seems to suggest that the excessively hungry, inhuman ambition displayed by some of the leads is a natural result. The new “Greed is good” as it were in a culture where there no longer seem to be any road maps.
“Gloria” is explosive, uncomfortable, hilarious and brilliant. I’ve already singled out Jennifer Kim, who does some great work as the unabashedly arch and calculating Kendra. Kendra’s frenemy Dean, inhabited by Ryan Spahn, is a portrait of sycophantic ingratiation that cannot withstand the intrusion of human desperation. And Janine Serralles brings surprising emotional heft to the role of Nan, a Generation X editor caught between culpability and a need for reinvention.
I have one minor quibble with “Gloria.” The use of operatic intros, outros and imagery feels a bit heavy handed. The material is tragic enough without the ham-fisted arias that seem otherwise irrelevant to the plot and character arcs. But this is easily forgiven by the truly original nature of the rest of the work.
As my companion and I finished a pre-show dinner, our server commented that she’d heard “mixed reviews” of the production. I’ve no doubt. This is a tough piece, with jarring, often discordant emotional demands. It may prove too much for the casual theater goer looking for mindless entertainment. Those who enjoy being provoked however, should clear space on their winter theater calendars.
“Gloria” runs through February 19 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.
In less than five minutes, it’s clear who Lori is talking to and what is in the trunk. The morning after taking in Greenhouse Theater Center’s world premiere of “Her America,” I’m still wondering if that makes a difference. I think it does.
If that seems an ambivalent reaction to playwright Brett Neveu’s latest work, it’s one in keeping with the source material. Even the press release describing the production is full of questions. Lori, played by Jeff Award-winning actress Kate Buddeke (Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Airline Highway”), confronts “where it all went astray. Was it the day she married Dan? The morning a stranger from her past reappeared? Or the night she put a secret in the trunk, changing her family forever?”
The aforementioned “secret” is the conferee of what amounts to a 75-minute monologue from a conflicted Lori. The lifelong resident of on undefined patch of earth in Middle America, the character earned her high school education, married young and is without a career. She details a lonely childhood full of religious judgment, shyness and mystery. Lori doesn’t know who fathered her, and that seems to be important to what we learn is a needy string of dependent relationships with men.
Despite her predilection, onstage and off, to live as a quiet island, Lori displays a curious lack of agency as she expands upon her spoken autobiography. Nothing is ever her fault, as typified by her repeated angry shouts toward the trunk. Imploring an unseen figure to “Say you’re sorry!” for the sad, injured state of affairs that has Lori creeping through her basement, digging through artifacts and hiding from the hounds upstairs.
It becomes very clear that Lori is a habitual hider, literally as well as metaphorically. There’s every reason to suspect that Lori’s often bipolar reflections on the course of her existence is the most she’s ever said at one time. And while she ultimately shirks responsibility for her own unhappiness, it’s equally apparent that it’s she who’s manipulated four lives. She exhibits no obvious guilt, just a lot of ignorance and self-pity.
Is this interesting? Kind of. Neveu’s script has some insightful observations about the smallness that overtakes the intellectually uncurious. Lori’s world isn’t much bigger than her couch, yard, husband and childhood friend. She describes drinking, bonfires and TV as her circle’s pursuits and it’s never occurred to the character to want or search for more.
Kate Buddeke is a talented actress who digs her teeth into the extended soliloquy of rural rage and regret. She’s well directed by Linda Gillum, and Scenic Designer Grant Sabin knows how to conjure a cellar that veritably screams “poor white trash” at the audience. Moreover, the one dramatic, forceful life choice that Lori actually makes (even an affair is made to sound like natural, casual happenstance), conjures urgent sociopolitical considerations of women’s health, financial independence and the tension between public and private morality.
“Her America” flirts with consequence but at the end of Buddeke’s energetic performance, theatergoers may find the work forgettable. Like the hole at the bottom of Lori’s steamer trunk. Because the only voice we hear, the only person we see, takes away so little from the experience herself. Lori goes nowhere, a metaphor driven home by her protracted basement cowering. And even if the stagnation is sometimes inventive, sluggishness itself rarely makes a lasting impression.
Only the night after the production’s press opening, the Greenhouse Theater’s Downstairs Mainstage housed no more than a dozen ticketholders. The material’s apathy is already affecting attendance. It’s too bad. Buddeke’s talent deserves better.
“Her America” runs through February 12 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Greenhouse Theater website.