There’s a burst of baroque music as US playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria kicks off: Handel, maybe? Whatever. It hints at the contrapuntal complexity of what’s to come.
Set in a publishing house (the play’s Pulitzer Prize winning author worked as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker for three years) just before the internet rendered literacy redundant, Gloria gives voice to a bunch of entitled, possibly talented, lazy, paranoid, ruthless bastards – assistants to assistants for the most part – who court success rather than achievement.
They’re climbing the kind of ladder where, whatever rung you’ve reached, you’re likely standing on someone else’s fingers.
As to the eponymous Gloria (Lisa McCune): she’s a spinster; shrivelled – obviously – and dedicated to her job (part of the problem as far as her colleagues are concerned). She’s a muted, mousey presence; even her hair seems servile-but-capable, her red shoes a forced rebellion rather than a sign of secret flamboyance.
And in this group she’s ‘The One’. You know. ‘The One’ everyone despises more than they despise everyone else. It’s never clear how ‘The One’ gets chosen in any social group, but no matter how much higher they may be up the proverbial, they’re a loser. Like Gloria.
She gave a party last night (catered), and Dean (Jordan Fraser-Trumble) was the only person to turn up: Suck. Well, Dean and a couple from another department, who may-or-may-not have been pretending, when they said they were on their way to somewhere else: Smart!
Ani, (a quietly, wickedly undercutting Jane Harber) calls Gloria an ‘emotional terrorist’ (a phrase I’ll be borrowing). And though there are comments made about how Gloria seems especially weird today, she seemed okay to me. It’s only later that you realise she’s barely spoken. That she wandered through the office perhaps three times in all, and that that’s odd for a character with their name on the cover of the program…
I really didn’t see it coming. And I wasn’t alone.
Miles (Callan Colley), the intern didn’t see it coming nor did Kendra (a brilliant Aileen Huynh – an actor who, on this outing deserves her own spin-off show) – though she’s so self-obsessed what would you expect?
Rumpled, decent how-did-I-get-here Lorin (Peter Paltos) from the fact-checking department, might have noticed something, but he’s on the edge of an abyss of self-loathing and numb with tiredness from overwork (a fact-checker checking fact-checkers’ fact-checking). His is a fantastically forensic unravelling.
Workplace drama seems better suited to TV than stage. But Jacobs-Jenkins’ play is sharp, fast and funny: and so is this production. It’s billed as a ‘contemporary satire’ but let’s not pigeon-hole. Besides, I think Jacobs-Jenkins is a bit of a genre-tease. What’s clear though, is that he’s a master of form and can play with it like nobody’s business.
The first half of Gloria rattles along at a rate of – something really-fast- and just when you’ve reached your cut-off point with the savage wit and diatribe, the rug is pulled from under your metaphoric office chair and Something Unexpected happens.
The ‘event’ that switches everything up a notch and allows Jacobs-Jenkins to refocus the material is beautifully staged. It’s ruthless, graphic and as awe-fully funny as such sudden horror can be. It’s ugly; it’s plausible.
Performances are uniformly excellent; the kind of precision ensemble work that allows sharp pace alongside brittle silences that ensures big moments are ‘owned’ but not ‘milked’.
All the actors (other than Paltos) double; a theatrical necessity referenced with a nice riff about people seeming familiar. But Jacobs-Jenkins extracts extra mileage. The doubling of the cast allows him to present another possibility, a road-not-travelled for the opening characters. This is especially effective for Nan (Lisa McCune), a senior editor heard, but not seen, in the first section.
McCune as Nan is terrific as she moves from a genuine, unembellished, empathetic recounting of her own experience of ‘the event’ to repellent opportunism – her self-awareness is bulldozed by her self-promotion before-your-very-eyes.
The direction by Lee Lewis is deft and efficient – excellent use of the swivel-chair and the desk-partition – though you might want to file something in one of the other filing-cabinet drawers guys, or make a feature of only using one… it’s a world of image over substance after all.
Someday, I’d like to see this play in a smaller theatre. The width of the Sumner sets everything I’ve seen there as a very, very flat widescreen. But Christina Smith (set and costume design), who has a terrifying future in banal-minimalist office-interiors should she so choose, makes the space work. She pulls our focus with the use of a tight, little transparent office-cubicle set-up (adrift in a sea of open space) and an opaque management upper-level.
The second sequence of the piece, shows a tasteful-kitsch coffee shop that’s cringeworthy-perfect. The timing on the Christmas lights – no discernible pattern I could follow, and just irritating enough – is genius (Paul Jackson, lighting design).
This, if I may be excused a boxing metaphor (and you’re correct if you assume I know nothing of the pugilistic paradigm), is a piece that doesn’t necessarily land all its punches. But who cares? It’s pretty cool witnessing the attempt.
Until July 21 at the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Sumner Theatre, Southbank
Photos by Brett Boardman