By Mary Paula Hunter
The vacuousness of the digital world and the mainstream media is an easy target.
Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Rachel Walshe. Staged by The Gamm Theatre at 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick, RI, through December 16.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins tackles a lot in his play Gloria. His subjects include: competition in the journalistic workplace, the death of print media, 20th century demographics (particularly how to usher the bulge of baby boomers out of the workplace), mass murder, profiting off survivor guilt, black stereotyping of whites and vice versa, and a few things I may have missed, like how it’s much better in the current climate to be good at math as opposed to being adept at English. People used to read, after all.
A wide lens to say the least.
In fact, so much is jammed into the two hour play that getting a sense of its core proves somewhat confounding. I became lost trying to figure out why any of these characters, who hurl insults at each other throughout the work day (the first act is a ping pong match of rapid fire meanness) remained on the job. Early on an editor explains to a newbie that moving up the ladder is impossible because the job is a post-college whim (that is, an internship). But as a concerned mouthpiece for career limitations the higher-up fails to convince or garner sympathy.
The position, by the way, is a coveted NYC Magazine job. Think New York Magazine or The New Yorker. Shabby right? If Jacobs-Jenkins is correct, assistant editors do nothing but go out for coffee, insult an intern, and put down each other, repeat. Take Dean and Kendra, for instance. These two over-educated assistant editors rifle through each other’s desks, accuse each other of substance abuse issues (drinking and shopping) — when they’re not cruelly describing each other’s failed career. The much put-upon intern needs to wear earplugs to shut out the nasty noise — after all, retrieving vending machine treats for his bosses requires concentration.
The vacuousness of the digital world and the mainstream media is an easy target and Jacob-Jenkins adds little to our understanding of why blogs and Twitter are replacing long form, in-depth journalism. The good old days of real writers writing real stories are gone. That the authors in the good old days were fueled — as one character admits — by cocaine is a minor detail. The “everything before is better” theme will no doubt irritate the historically minded in the audience — along with the reasonably savvy.
What’s left of value in the world of today’s journalism? In Gloria, it is the profile, which often feature dead people who can’t profit from the attention. This lament is offered up by Lorin, the fact-checker who is the play’s moral center. He’s a nerdy guy who wants to connect, keep it real, stick to the facts. He also wants everyone to shut up.
I must admit that by the middle of the second act I did, too. While a lot of propounding is crammed into the script, it is at the service of the same ideas rehashed in each scene. Editors who have moved onto television writing (considered the ultimate in terms of superficiality) are concerned only with fame and profit. Even Sean, who has suffered a nervous breakdown (he’s not the only one) and dabbled with Buddhism is only consumed with his reputation and deal making. Regarding the Gamm Theatre production, the staging’s pacing and tone rarely varies under the direction of Rachel Walshe. Snarky characters rush through their lines as if conversation was opportunity to win a race. Awkward Lorin, played by Gabriel Graetz, reflects on life during his final appearance as a temp, but by that time it is too little too late.
Rather than developing a central idea through the development of his characters, Jacob-Jenkins is content to create mouthpieces for his various opinions. When the top-dog editor, Nan, faces the audience (more than once) to detail her journey from callous editor to a wealthy truth-telling author we get the point: books not the virtuous exercises we assumed them to be. Then again, did trade publications, for the most part, ever compete with literary fiction in terms of artistic merit?
The problem is that Jacobs-Jenkins in focusing on the shirker at work, the cynical self-help author, the media-addled blogster, the twitter addict, fails to convince us that these specimens prove contemporary journalism is going to hell. But a laundry list of woes is not a substitute for effective drama; even a jeremiad needs to hint at a vision of how things could be. Gloria, named after a mousy, styleless and ignored character — one of the play’s many sterotypes — offers little in the way of exultation. Perhaps Jacobs-Jenkins choose the title because he knew we’d forget his characters by the time the lights dimmed.
Gloria doesn’t provide much exultation. The title character is a stereotype: mousy, styleless, ignored. How much do you learn about genuine journalism spending time among squabbling bottom feeders?
Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces