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Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids Provides Michigan Premiere of Gloria

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play presents a bleak, funny-sad view of modern life.
Kendra (Bryanna Lee) providing fearless feedback in the workplace.

Kendra (Bryanna Lee) providing fearless feedback in the workplace. / Actors’ Theatre

"I used to be disgusted," Elvis Costello once sang, "but now I try to be amused." The opposite may be true of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play Gloria: it starts out darkly amused by the office culture of a lifestyle magazine but ends in shock and sadness. Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids recently completed a run, which was the Pulitzer finalist's Michigan premiere.

The play opens with Dean, an editorial assistant, coming into work late. He'd drank too much the night before at a party thrown by Gloria, a friendless coworker. He didn't want to be there, but he doesn't much want to be at work, either. It seems that no one does. The work isn't meaningful, and anyway there isn't enough of it; witness Miles, the intern, fetching people snacks from the vending machine.

Spiritual unease, naked ambition, deferred dreams: what could be funnier? Certainly, the play wrings out a lot of comedy. Particularly funny was Bryanna Lee as sharp-clawed Kendra, but everyone had his or her moments, even poor Gloria.  At times, the play felt like a more nihilistic version of The Office.

Jacobs-Jenkins prides himself on pulling the rug out from under audiences, though; audiences familiar with his work would have been prepared to lose their footing. Still, the shock was real. (Readers concerned with spoiler prevention are encouraged to shield their eyes). Gloria, a little funny, a little creepy, took out a gun and killed many people, herself among them.

It's in the aftermath that the true bitterness of the play asserts itself. Dean writes a memoir titled Gloria. Kendra writes a proposal for a book ostensibly about the victims but it's clearly a way to get her name out there. Nan, Dean's old boss, is asked to entertain the idea of writing an account herself. After a moment's pause, she asks how much she could get. 

In the end, Lorin, a fact-checker who survived the day only to find himself temping in television, wills himself to be more present and empathetic: he invites the weird IT guy out for dinner. It is simultaneously a Good Thing--people are indeed lonely, as the news keeps telling us---and unconvincing. Jacobs-Jenkins gets his energy from contempt, the way Jonathan Swift did.

Actors' Theatre did honorably by the play, providing a well-acted, well-staged evening that at times had the audience laughing hard and at times uncomfortably quiet. There should have been more viewers present, but that's all right. Those in attendance were, as Lorin hoped to become, fully present, which is not a bad measure of a play's success.

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