If Sartre were writing today, he might set one of his plays in the Manhattan offices of a national magazine with cultural pretensions, a living hell depicted in all its chic horror by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins in “Gloria.” Under Evan Cabnet’s barbed direction at the Vineyard Theater, a smart cast applies cutting wit to satirize five ruthlessly ambitious editorial assistants and the social outcast they make the butt of their jokes. The humor is dark and cruel, but terribly funny — until it suddenly isn’t. At which point, the comedy jumps the rails and doesn’t get back on track — until it suddenly does.
This is the kind of place where no one in editorial, not even assistant editors, shows up much before 11 a.m. The year is 2010, so there’s a slightly dated look about the office decor, the desktop technology, and the go-to-work clothes provided by Takeshi Kata (sets) and Ilona Somogyi (costumes). Even the trendy Starbucks order of a skim macchiato with extra foam will be supplanted in a later scene by an even trendier order of an almond milk cortado with four shots.
Collectively, the little fish swimming in this office pool are young and lazy, but feel supremely entitled to their bosses’ jobs. They watch one another with paranoid concentration, alert to the slightest sign that someone has scored points in the ferocious competition for position. Even Miles, the baby intern played by Kyle Beltran (in a smart career move after “Fortress of Solitude”), knows how to butter up a boss.
Individually, each character has a personal grievance to air and Jacobs-Jenkins, who made a splash last season with “An Octoroon,” supplies each of them with the individual mean-and-nasty idiom to vent their special spleen.
But only Kendra (Jennifer Kim, making a showy Off Broadway debut), has something spiteful to say about all her colleagues on the culture desk. The most overtly ambitious of them all (“I will die before I turn 30 in a cubicle!”), she has enough leftover bile to slime the fact-checkers and copy editors down the hall — a group well-represented by the personable Michael Crane as the panicky chief fact-checker (“I’m 37 and all I have is a degree in French. Like, why did I do that?”) — and just about everyone else on the masthead. This one’s so vicious, even her boss is afraid of her.
Ryan Spahn, in another impressive Off Broadway debut, makes a likeable guy out of Dean, the office’s only bona fide Nice Guy. Dean has his own literary ambitions, but he was considerate enough to go to the housewarming that Gloria, “the office freak,” threw the previous night. No one else had the courtesy to show up, and as Dean tells it, “it was so awful — so so so awful — and sad.”
When she finally makes her tentative appearance, in an understated but wonderfully articulate perf from Jeanine Serralles (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), the pathologically timid Gloria is surprisingly forceful in letting her hurt feelings be known.
This necessitates a follow-up scene in a more downbeat mood, in which Gloria’s officemates are forced to deal with her harsh criticism.
Dramaturgically, the scene makes sense, but stylistically, the scribe veers so sharply into the dark side that he abandons the vital humor that made this bleak satire of the fashionable literati such wicked fun.
The play recovers its comic stride in the final scene, set some years later in a TV production company in Los Angeles. More streamlined and less stressful, this office is staffed with its own ambitious young staff — played by the same versatile cast, of course — but too chill to stoop to theatrical East Coast hysterics. When two key players from the original New York office show up, it’s to illustrate, in the most sardonic terms, exactly what Jacobs-Jenkins thinks about the cynical ways of the entertainment industries: How they feast on real-life tragedy to make commercial “art,” and how they create celebrities of the bottom feeders who serve up the dishes at this feast.