Sumner Theatre, Melbourne
June 21, 2018

Hot young American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins looks at the rich and familiar comic vein that is office politics in off-Broadway hit, Gloria. He pokes, scratches and ultimately slices it right open, simultaneously applying his razor-sharp wit to the media industry in this satire mostly set in the Manhattan office of a prestigious magazine (which Jacobs-Jenkins has said is definitely not The New Yorker, where he worked  for three years). Directed with perfect pacing and an emphasis on character by Lee Lewis, the Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company, this Melbourne Theatre Company production will make audience members who work in an office, especially in the media, laugh uncomfortably.

Jane Harber, Aileen Huynh and Callan Colley in Gloria. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Gloria opens on three young, entitled editorial assistants, who are driven by the desire for a byline and ultimately their bosses’ jobs. The office hierarchy is underlined by the way they treat the intern, and mock the title character, a misfit who has worked at the magazine for years, and whose party nearly everyone didn’t attend. The sharp, inventive comedy of their scheming and complaining is sidelined, almost permanently, by a sudden, dramatic development. Jacobs-Jenkins then focuses his cynical eye on the media’s propensity for turning personal tragedy into commercial entertainment.

The cast nail their characters. Except for Peter Paltos, who plays a harried fact-checker with such downbeat humour that he inspires mid-scene applause, they each interpret two or three characters across three acts. Jane Harber, best known for Offspring, delineates between them particularly well, from discontented editorial assistant to polished Manhattan publishing player to a somewhat air-headed office dogsbody at a Los Angeles television production company. Newcomer Callan Colley also tackles his three diverse characters well, most notably Act I’s intern, who exudes confidence and intelligence even while undertaking menial tasks.

Jordan Fraser-Trumble and Aileen Huynh shine as editorial assistants at each other’s throats; Huynh steals the show at times, especially during a monologue delivered with delicious comic venom, timing and subtle physicality. Lisa McCune is essentially the straightwoman of the piece, providing an assured anchor first as the restrained Gloria, around whom the story pivots, then a quietly ambitious editor.

Lisa McCune in Gloria. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Kudos to voice and dialect coach Anna McCrossin-Owen, who is instrumental in not only differentiating but also defining the characters. Even within the New York ivory tower of Act I there’s a diversity of backgrounds and personality evident in their accents. Christina Smith’s costumes also nicely support character, right down to the jacket the intern slips on to meet the editor – a marker of his subtle smarts. Her sets, brightly lit by Paul Jackson, are functional, though I wonder why the LA office didn’t evoke Californian cool the way the earlier scenes felt suitably New York. Hats off to whoever created the Act I finale’s shocking special effect, which is enhanced by Russell Goldsmith’s sound design.

It’s mildly disappointing that the whip-smart satire of Gloria’s first half is replaced by fairly straight drama, then a restrained tragi-comic final act that ambles toward irresolution. Through one character’s journey, Jacobs-Jenkins suggests that disengaging is the only reasonable response to the nasty milieu he reveals. Yet it was so much fun when the playwright had it in his teeth, biting and shaking it like a dog playing with a favourite toy.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s Gloria is at the Sumner Theatre until July 21


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