Stage Door Review 2022


Monday, March 7, 2022


by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by André Sills

ARC with Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw St., Toronto

March 4-20, 2022

Lorin: “Why are people only interested in someone if they die?”

Great comedies like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata or Molière’s Tartuffe feel relevant no matter when they are staged. Others like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Gloria, now receiving its Canadian premiere from ARC in association with Crow’s Theatre, already feel dated. The play is from 2015 and it’s noticeable how the advent of the Covid pandemic, the awakening to social injustice, an insurrection and now a new war in Europe have drained Jacobs-Jenkins’ would-be audacious comedy of its humour.

The comedy is set amidst the back-stabbing world of editorial assistants of a once important Manhattan magazine and features deliberately abrupt shifts in tone – from comedy to satire to tragedy – which show the playwright is consciously pushing the boundaries of genre. Director André Sills and his cast deftly negotiate these shifts, but by the end Jacobs-Jenkins’ piling of irony upon irony becomes too obvious.

The play begins with what we assume is an ordinary work day in the “culture department of a large magazine”. Anica (Jonelle Gunderson), who does tech and secretarial work, is already present and so is the intern Miles (Savion Roach), who is listening to music so loud through his headphones that Ani can’t get through to him. Next to arrive is Dean (Nabil Traboulsi), looking much the worse for wear. He is quite unhappy that Ani did not go to the house-warming party for Gloria, a woman who has worked at the magazine for 15 years. Gloria is known as the “office freak” and no one particularly knows or likes her, yet everyone does know that she has scrimped for all her working life for a decent place to live. Dean went to the party and stayed till the end but was embarrassed because no one else went and it was clear that Gloria was hoping for a crowd.

After short while Kendra (athena kaitlin trinh) enters, even later to work than Dean, who is always late. She greets Ani and Dean with mild insults and then proceeds to tear away at people in other departments whom we never meet. It’s clear that while Miles, Ani and Dean are trying to work, Kendra does no work at all. The first few times we meet Gloria (Deborah Drakeford), she is still in her trench coat, stares at the person she meets for a unusually long period of time and then moves off without saying a word.

The centrepiece of the crucial first scene are two long tirades that Kendra launches into after she and Ani learn that a well-known singer, the (fictional) Sarah Tweed, has committed suicide. Kendra, a Tweed super-fan, is furious that someone she hates has been given the plum job of writing Tweed’s obituary. Ani and Kendra play Tweed’s music so loud and sing along that Lorin (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio), the head fact-checker comes from the other side of the building to rebuke them.

The anger of being shut out of the assignment leads Kendra to lash out at everyone present by bringing their hidden personal details (like Dean’s secret novel) out in the open. She hurls slurs against gays, lesbians, trans people, and most ethnic and religious groups one can think of. Jacobs-Jenkins clearly means Kendra’s tirades to be funny and assumes that he is escalating their humour the longer she continues since he has Lorin pop out twice more to tell her and the others to shut up.

Strangely enough, these tirades aimed at humiliating everyone around her, especially Dean, went over with the opening night audience like a lead balloon. Yes, there were titters that sounded more embarrassed than gleeful, but what dominated Kendra’s monologues was a near-complete lack of response.

On the one side, this points to a difference in sense of humour between Americans and Canadians. Americans seem to lap up the supposed humour of humiliating others, while the same humour makes Canadians cringe. I distinctly remember being among a a large group of Canadian twentysomethings seeing the premeire run of a Neil Simon play in New York. The Canadians remained completely untouched by the flying personal insults on stage while the Americans around us were guffawing nonstop.

On another side, athena kaitlin trinh as Kendra tended to deliver Kendra’s words directly to the audience rather than to the actors on stage making it seem more like a stand-up monologue that simply was failing to land its jokes. On yet another side, Jacobs-Jenkins has specified in the text what race certain characters belong to. Kendra is “Asian” while Ani and Dean are “White” and Miles is “Black”. The longer Kendra speaks, revealing her to be the vilest, most self-centred, most unprincipled character we have met, the more we begin to wonder why Jacobs-Jenkins is making Kendra the stereotype of the rich Asian-American princess whom we are meant to revile for her sense of entitlement and viciousness.

However, unpleasant (or comic) Kendra’s speeches are meant to be, the scene ends in a completely unexpected disaster. Since this is the play’s Canadian premiere, I do not want to spoil the show by revealing it. If you intend to see the play, do not look up summaries of the action online.

Suffice it to say that the remainder of the play deals with the fallout from this disaster. The main question is do those who have survived the disaster plan to profit from it in some way, say by writing a book about it, and if they do why are doing it? Is it really to tell the story as they witnessed it? Or is it simply some form of self-promotion? Given the archly cynical tone of the play, the latter question is the most à propos. The only further question is how hypocritical will the characters be in claiming that they are not trying to cash in on a tragedy. The second of the three scenes ends in a terrible irony when someone we are led to think of as ethical is revealed as tempted to the contrary. The third scene is almost unnecessary after that, turning in screws of irony that were already tight enough.

The conclusion, which switches its focus away from the main characters of the first scene, forgets to tell us how two stories end that occupied the first and second scenes – namely what finally happens to Dean and to Kendra.

Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is basically a 21st-century take on the classic American newspaper play The Front Page (1928) by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur about newspapermen trying to scoop each other about an execution that they are waiting to take place and about any tasty tidbits about the murderer and his victim. In Gloria the disaster far different, but the focus is still on who can scoop whom. Gloria also rakes over the same material as occupied Donald Margulies in his 1996 play Collected Stories concerning who has the right to tell a certain story and who does not. Both earlier plays delve more deeply into the question and Gloria for all its daring can’t really be said to be more audacious than The Front Page was in its day.

The humour that does land in Gloria is its satire of millennials and their sense of privilege and entitlement along with the irony of their criticism of both the generation ahead of them and the one behind them. This type of satire, however, is very time-sensitive. To watch a play where young people are complaining about their jobs and the fact that they are not advancing quickly enough, now in light of the real-world disasters we have experienced makes all of the characters, except perhaps for the existential Lorin, appear utterly superficial and contemptible. It is absolutely no pleasure to spend two hours with them when real suffering of so many kinds is happening in the world.

Well-known actor but first-time director André Sills may have chosen Gloria for his debut since he played the lead in Jacobs-Jenkins much more relevant 2014 Obie Award-winning play An Octoroon, staged by the Shaw Festival in 2017. Sills gives the show the right pace and draws a number of fine performances from cast most of whom play multiple roles.

Chief among these is Deborah Drakeford. Gloria is said to be strange and Drakeford certainly makes us notice that Gloria is strange. Gloria’s long pauses staring at a person are so intense and go so far beyond the normally long stage pause that even we begin to feel uncomfortable. Drakeford also plays Dean’s immediate superior Nan, who is heard but never seen during the first but does appear on stage in the second and third scenes. Here she gives a character who, as a relief in this savage work, at least appears sensitive and caring. It is a huge disappointment in the third scene when the playwright shows us that this impression is false – so false indeed that we feel he has betrayed us.

Another strong performance comes from Carlos Gonzalez-Vio who plays Lorin. Jacobs-Jenkins gives Lorin an excellent meditative speech in the first scene that comes as a welcome respite from all the shouting that has preceded it. Lorin sits down and reviews out loud Philosophy 101 questions like “Why am I here?”, Where am I going?”, “What is the point of life?’, etc. Gonzalez-Vio gives us the impression that Lorin has become so unhappy in his job that he reviews these questions almost as a routine, almost as if asking them enough times might finally bring an answer.

Nabil Traboulsi is outstanding as the troubled Dean. We first meet Dean when he is hungover, but Traboulsi shows how that condition recedes as water and aspirin do their work. Then Dean is able to counter Kendra’s attacks on him even though such sparring is tiresome. When we meet Dean again in the second scene he is in even worse shape than he was in scene one since he has not yet recovered from the trauma of the disaster that ended scene one. Traboulsi shows quite clearly how Dean is outwardly agitated and struggles to be calm. His meeting with Kendra is meant to be a reconciliation but ends up with a near total breakdown that Traboulsi makes excruciating to witness.

Savion Roach plays an easy-going guy in all three of his roles. As the intern Miles, Roach suggests that Miles accepts others’ abuse of his position as part of his learning experience but uses his headphones to shut himself off from his coworkers as much as to listen to his music. He also uses his headphones with his music off to discover how corrupt they really are. His portrayal of the producer Rashaad in scene three feels very much as if we are seeing Miles again only several years later.

Jonelle Gunderson gives Anica of scene one a rather brittle personality, a tech nerd who really cares about little else. In scene two Gunderson plays a seemingly more mature, centred character as Sasha, though, as we find, one as venal as the subeditors of scene one. In scene three Gunderson tries to make the character Callie, different from Anica, but ends up with another Anica, who simply seems more enthusiastic.

The the show’s main monologuist Kendra athena kaitlin trinh projects an inimical attitude right from the start as if Kendra is casting about for prey on whom to unleash her overabundant aggression. What tends to undermine these rants, besides Jacobs-Jenkins negative attitude toward the character, is that trinh has not quite mastered them enough to make them feel natural.

Jackie Chau has well-designed the show. Jacobs-Jenkins specifies that the office workers sit at cubicles in the first scene, but Chau has designed an open-lan office which means that the characters have even less privacy and are thus even more distractible. Chris Malkowski’s lighting is especially effective in focussing our attention on the quieter moments that Lorin and later Nan provide. Sills asks Malkowski to cause the lights to flicker on various occasions but what this is meant to signify is unclear.

For those in the mood for an extraordinarily toxic workplace comedy, Gloria may be just what you want. Even if it is dated it does encapsulate the once-hot concerns people had about the demise of publishing, the craven desire for fame and the rise of entitled youth in the 2010s, before everything changed in 2020. Except for Dean, Lorin and Nan the characters tend to be cartoonish and, sadly even Nan is does not have the depth we hoped for. The play could easily end at the conclusion of the second scene which makes the third scene feel like Jacobs-Jenkins is beating a dead horse.

Yet, there is no doubt from Gloria and from An Octoroon that Jacobs-Jenkins has a fierce talent for the audacious. Ontarians will have a chance to see more of his work this summer when the Shaw Festival presents his play Everybody (2017), his take on the medieval play Everyman. ARC’s Gloria helps us fill in the picture of a playwright to watch.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: athena kaitlin trinh as Kendra and Nabil Traboulsi as Dean; Carlos Gonzalez-Vio as Lorin; Savion Roach as Shawn and Nabil Traboulsi as Dean  Deborah Drakeford as Nan. © 2022 Jeremy Mimnagh.

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