‘Gloria’ is hysterical yet somber at American Conservatory Theater

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The American Conservatory Theater cleverly blends drama and comedy with the return of Pulitzer Prize finalist “Gloria,” a play directed by Obie Award winner Eric Ting. “Gloria” sifts vigorously through the average American white-collar job experience, unveiling the spirit of an office workplace. With biting mockery tackling ambition, career landscapes, fulfillment and more, “Gloria” shrewdly encapsulates the corporate ladder and its command over American lives. The excellence in this plot is that it merely serves as a backdrop to support the play’s greater investigation of trauma. 

The play follows Ani (Martha Brigham), Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah), Dean (Jeremy Kahn) and Gloria (Lauren English), who work together at a magazine company. With each character holding differing levels of experience and professional perspective, “Gloria” depicts a boisterous day at work with the awfully awkward Gloria, who hosted a housewarming party that no one attended. 

“Gloria” controls the brilliant comedic energy throughout, emanating the flamboyance of television sitcoms. Playwright and MacArthur fellowship winner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins delivers sharp, free-flowing dialogue that cuts the tension between the audience and the performance while simultaneously opening the wounds left by the hierarchical workforce system on the characters. Conversations are carefully written to resemble realistic speech, crucially capturing the makeup of the relationships on display. “Gloria” easily captures the quirkiness that exists in office spaces: The troublesome coworker conflicts and camaraderie, the deferring — or lack thereof — to supervisors and the compartmentalization of an often insipid job in relation to the rest of one’s life. “Gloria” playfully secretes dry humor from what seems like a less than ideal subject. 

Unique banter — “Post-war glutton babies,” “You know when random white girls be looking like Reese Witherspoon” — colors the play’s fluorescently lit office floor with a darker ambience. “Gloria” isn’t afraid to prod and nudge, bringing forth questions about the worth of a career and life with transparency while bemoaning the utter shortage of believable answers. It’s one long plea, acknowledging the helplessness of career-oriented lives and depicting the awakening that can occur when people look beyond the workplace and aspire to something greater than themselves. 

The script is fleshed out and galvanized by stellar performances from the entire cast. With three main characters working in a magazine publication together, there is a heavy emphasis on conversation, from casual chats to full-blown group cacophonies. Mah’s portrayal of Kendra’s aphoristic harangues combined with her characteristically brazen attitude is the play’s main force of subversion against the corporate world. Mah spits daggers across the stage, but easily presents the most heartfelt character, baffling spectators with mixed feelings. Similarly, Kahn as Dean produces a perplexing surge of contradictory feelings. Viewers will become irritated at his incompetence, but also fond of the truth in his circumstances. The cast of “Gloria” is a synergetic powerhouse, poking viewers with their precise comedic timing and slapping them with a sentimental wake-up call. 

In the second act of “Gloria,” the story suddenly shifts toward dramatic turmoil, bathing itself in the destruction and renewal of trauma and eschewing the discourse surrounding inner healing. “Gloria” finds context in the communal aspects of trauma and the places where victims, witnesses and the public position distressing events in their lives. Akin to the first act, this excavation is effortlessly brought to light within the simple setting of a Starbucks. Defying audiences’ expectations, the Starbucks environment fits smoothly with the posture of the exploration. Going to Starbucks is routinely contrasted with the characters’ being stuck in the past, as they feel the consuming weight of a disturbing event years after it has occured. Although this tonal transition happens without warning, “Gloria” carries itself well to the end while still holding on to its ironic framework. 

On the surface, “Gloria” sucks onlookers into an office cubicle and a Starbucks. Although these settings are not incredibly captivating at first glance, they prove to be worthy of attention as the play moves forward. When the curtains drop, the play leaves viewers with a lingering sensation — “Gloria” leaves a lasting impression.

Cameron Opartkiettikul covers theater. Contact him at [email protected].