Gloria theatre review (Seymour Centre, Sydney)

The fluorescent lights are unflattering. The desks are too close together. The coffee is substandard. And now the photocopier needs paper.

It’s grimly familiar, the magazine publishing office tableau of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ much-awarded Gloria. And peculiarly nostalgic at the same time — the scene and, in turn, the play.

Magazines have had their day, right? And offices are supposed to be on the way out, too. Technology is killing both, among other causes. At the very least, aren’t offices paperless now? Why DOES that photocopier need constant feeding?

The quaintness extends to Jacobs-Jenkins’ characters, a cartoonish cohort of sepia-filter millennials, each as needy and narcissistic as the next, climbing over each other to get ahead. Though why anyone would want to get ahead at a magazine publisher in 2019 is beyond me. Shouldn’t these peak-capitalism caricatures be pumping out listicles at BuzzFeed, rather than cowering to boomers like the titular Gloria, a Miranda Priestly-type without poise or power?

Jacobs-Jenkins spent some time at The New Yorker, though he insists his office satire isn’t drawn from that experience. It’s hard to know, at least in the first act, from where he’s drawing it from exactly. I’ve worked in some media offices in my time and none have ever looked and sounded like this.

That, perhaps, is a very deliberate choice. It certainly heightens the Mean Girls schtick that kept most of the opening night audience at the Seymour Centre’s cosy Reginald space at a rolling chuckle. And the unreality certainly makes what happens next that much more jolting. And yet, as satire on workplace relations, that much blunter.

And what does happen next? Well, that I’m not allowed to tell you. Keep the secrets and what-not. But it’s either a coup de théâtre — as the judges that named the play a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2016 would have us believe — or a cheap theatrical trick that manipulates in entirely unnatural ways.

I tend to think it’s more the latter. Though the play certainly becomes more interesting the longer it goes. It’s not that Jacobs-Jenkins has nothing to say about these strange involuntary communities we form and the strange relationships within them. It’s just that it’s never fresh enough, funny enough and certainly familiar enough to sustain its horror show premise.

I speak only of the play because I think the production is relatively sound. It’s certainly invested with talent, from the producers (Outhouse Theatre Co) that brought stellar productions of The Flick and The Rolling Stone to the same stage last year.

Director Alexander Berlage is one of Sydney’s most exciting stage talents, helming campy Hayes Theatre musicals Cry-Baby and, just last month, American Psycho with thrilling inventiveness. The office environment has him much more hemmed in. And I wish he’d grounded the performances in the first act to better establish what Jacobs-Jenkins is trying, perhaps failing, to achieve.

It’s hard to fault most of the performances, too. In the six-strong cast, Rowan Witt and Reza Momenzada get the closest to something real, digging in shallows to find empathy for their characters. The female characters – spirited performances from Annabel Harte, Michelle Ny and Georgina Symes – feel thinner still.

Credit to set designer Jeremy Allen, who has built a necessary proscenium in the empty space and captured the industrial coldness of the office environments down to the passive-aggressive Post-it notes. It demonstrates a theatre company busting out of this small space to take on bigger work with bigger ideas. All power to them.

I just wish they chose a play that felt more real.

Gloria plays the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until June 22

Image above by Clare Hawley

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