Aggressively ambitious co-workers snipe about slights, while responding to a boss who is “an emotional terrorist.” Could be any toxic office environment, but in “Gloria,” now playing through June 26 at the Gloucester Stage Company, the environment is the offices of a city magazine, and while print media may be dying, opportunities to cash in on the media’s insatiable appetite for tragedy drive this cold-hearted crew.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon,” “Neighbors,” “Appropriate”) draws a cohort of shallow, even cruel individuals and gives each of them hefty monologues to explain their motivations as he sets the stage for a shocking tragedy that occurs at the end of Act I. Without giving the event away, suffice to say its placement early in this oh-so-dark comedy allows the focus to shift not to the whys of the crime, but to these colleagues’ callous response to it.
The play opens in the office purgatory reserved for assistants with little hope of advancement. Jeffrey Petersen’s detailed and appropriately cluttered set is the environment for a trio of sour strivers: the long-suffering Dean (Michael Wood), secretly writing his memoir, while managing an editor’s calendar; Kendra (Ann Dang, hilariously caffeine-driven), a wealthy young woman who spends more time at Starbucks than at her desk; and Ani (Teresa Langford), who smoothly plays both sides, always keeping her eye on her own position. They are joined by a college intern (Jordan Pearson) who does his best to tune out their whining by working with headphones on, trying not to roll his eyes every time someone asks him to run to the vending machine. Their kvetching is interrupted by the appearance of Gloria (Esme Allen), a rumpled editor that no one seems to like, and Lorin (Michael Broadhurst), a stressed-out fact-checker who has a meltdown over a last-minute copy change.
Scene two takes place in a Starbucks where Dean and Kendra meet and argue over who can control the story of events at their office. Later, when Dean and Kendra leave, Nan (Allen in a new role) and former assistant Sasha (Langford again) meet to catch up in the same Starbucks. Jacobs-Jenkins’s dramatic structure loosens a bit here, and the pacing and motivation are uneven. Even his sharp sense of humor can’t keep us leaning forward. Dean and Kendra’s bitter sparring fails to generate any heat, and when Dean falls apart it’s awkward rather than pitiful. Allen delivers a character right out of “Sex and the City” without any of the heart or charm of those women. Her portrayal here and in the scene that follows feels overly broad and two-dimensional.
The third scene brings us to a production company in Los Angeles where superficiality is celebrated — at least there they are honest about it. Here Jacobs-Jenkins brings us full circle with the return of Lorin, now simply a temp, whose calm and thoughtful responses to the absurdity around him stand in sharp contrast to the overwrought fact-checker we saw earlier. Jacobs-Jenkins also sharpens his barbs again with the appearance of a delightful poser, Rashaad (Pearson again), but the script shows some fraying as the playwright tries to stitch together fragments that don’t quite fit.
Generational resentment, economic frustration, and ethical standards (or lack thereof) are always buried beneath the characters’ utter self-absorption. The task for the Gloucester Stage Company ensemble is to walk Jacob-Jenkins’s tightrope of sincerity and spoof while breathing life into these calculating cads. But even Bryn Boice’s directing skill can’t help her actors find the propulsive rhythm required to keep us engaged in their sleazy shenanigans.
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Bryn Boice. At Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. Through June 26. $25-$58. 978-281-4433, gloucesterstage.com
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.