Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border
But the internet (and related technologies) brought unintended, if not unforeseen, negative consequences: fake news, identity theft, shortened attention spans, foreign manipulation of elections, andsomewhat counter-intuitivelya disconnection from real human interaction. Although Branden Jacobs-Jenkins never directly addresses how technology has fundamentally altered the way we deal with our fellow humans, it nonetheless pervades his 2015 play Gloria, which opened this week at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater.
Gloria takes place in the offices of Grid, a fictional New York magazinespecifically, in the copy department where the assistants to the different editors occupy cubicles and alternately savage each other and assign menial tasks to the intern, Miles (Jared Corbin, who shimmers with focused energy), while they complain about the dead-end nature of their jobs. At least Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) and Dean (Jeremy Kahn) do, for Ani (Martha Brigham) is by far the most chill and emotionally open of the three. (She also has great taste in theatre, with her cubicle decorations including Playbills from August: Osage County and Venus in Fur.) The set by Lawrence E. Moten III and lighting by Wen-Ling Liao perfectly establish the sort of sterile, soul-killing cubicle space in which so many modern workers toil.
Though they labor in close quarters, the characters are mostly disconnected from each other, partly from their ambition, which expresses itself in competition among themselves, and partly through technology. Miles, despite being the youngest and most gregarious of the bunch, seals himself off from the others by wearing noise-cancelling headphones. But he's only the most faithful to his musicthroughout the play, other characters are often seen shut off from the rest of the world with their ears covered and their eyes glued to screens.
There are shocking moments in Gloria, which I won't reveal (and if you want them to be a surprise for you, I highly recommend ignoring the trigger warnings posted as you enter the theater). I will say the Jacobs-Jenkins does a brilliant job of both foreshadowing what is to come and hiding it behind a barrage of dialogue that snaps and crackles with equal measures of humor and vitriol. The first act (until just before curtain) feels a bit like a paintball war: projectiles flying in rat-a-tat rhythm, a bit chaotic, leaving bruises and raising welts but inflicting no permanent damage. But at the end of act one, everything changes for everyone, and all the actors (save for Matt Monaco, as Lorin) play different characters post-intermission.
There are some truly wonderful performances on display here. Lauren English is marvelously schlumpy as Gloria (yet rather glamorous and confident when she returns as Nan in act two), an underling who's worked at Grid longer than pretty much anyone else. She shambles and shies back and exhibits anything but confidence, despite her long tenure. English occasionally looks down her nose at the other charactersnot in a haughty or superior way, but as a technique of self-protection, almost like a startle response, and it's heartbreaking. As Ani, Martha Brigham has a Lili Taylor-like quality that manages to project a sense of confidence and strength, while at the same time revealing the vulnerability of her character. Where Kendra and Dean spar to cover up their weaknesses with showy bluster, Martha Bingham's Ani seems above the fray while still participating in it. Her portrayal in act two of Sasha, a publishing executive, is a little chilly and mannered for my taste, but when she finishes as Callie, an assistant at a TV production company, her energy and eager gaze made me forget all about boring old Sasha.
After the thrills of act onethe fierce dialogue, the explosive inter-office conflictact two is a bit of a letdown. Where the first half flies by with nonstop drama, act two tends to drag because it's mostly characters talking about and dealing with the events of act one. Fortunately, thanks to Eric Ting's stellar direction, even though the text focuses less on action and more on reaction, the pace remains sprightly and engaging.
There are plenty of laughs in Gloria, but they come from a dark place: the loneliness that arises, in part, from a technology-infused world that seems to have increased the opportunities for isolation, rather than achieving tech's oft-promised goal of turning us into global villagers.
Gloria runs through April 12, 2020, at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $15-$110, and are available at www.act-sf.org.