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.