Theatre

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ much-hyped Gloria is well executed by MTC, but its pretensions outweigh its eminence. By Peter Craven.

‘Gloria’ at MTC

Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Callan Colley, Jane Harber and Aileen Huynh star in MTC’s Gloria.
Credit: Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Callan Colley, Jane Harber and Aileen Huynh star in MTC’s Gloria (

This production of Gloria, a new play by up-and-coming black American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, has raised plenty of expectations, not least because of its nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. It also involves a spectacular moment in a magazine office that any audience will find unforgettable. It is expertly directed by Lee Lewis for the Melbourne Theatre Company and the cast, led by a commanding Lisa McCune, is a fair way above average, with newcomer Callan Colley especially impressive in a trio of characterisations. There is a degree of metamorphosis as characters mutate and the actors take on new roles and everything somehow changes but remains the same.

This is a talented piece of dramatic writing in an unusually able production, but nothing in it is as great as the expectations it arouses, or the playwright and his Australian director vaunt.

The image of Jacobs-Jenkins projected by the program notes suggests a playwright who takes himself very seriously indeed, and Lee Lewis – in her pre-show address to sponsors and others – says the 33-year-old is a figure to put with America’s greatest, with Eugene O’Neill. Jacobs-Jenkins, she says, will (or should) one day win the Nobel Prize.

Well, here’s hoping.

As it stands, Gloria is an upper-middlebrow drama – even satire – about a magazine so obviously based on The New Yorker that its swipes and jibes are discernible from the stalls. (Much talk of fact-checking, nudge nudge).

The central group of characters are low-level rewriters and editors with mighty ambitions and sometimes expensive educations, who are marking time in a hierarchical workplace that is neglectful of their human needs and superegotistical images of self, though all that is turned on its head when tragedy strikes.

Jordan Fraser-Trumble plays a gay, self-mocking editorial assistant and doesn’t do a great deal, though he gets the intern, played by Colley, to buy his coffee. Aileen Huynh’s character is forever getting her own caffeine fix from Starbucks while dishing the dirt about everybody with frenetic glee. Then there’s the nice girl (Jane Harber – known for her role as the nurse who marries the ditzy young brother on Offspring) who listens open-mouthed and open-eyed to every casual atrocity uttered or committed. Oh, yes, and there’s Peter Paltos as the guy down the corridor who keeps having the obituary he’s preparing for a tragically dead female rockstar interrupted by the rant, the rave, the gossip.

Gloria is a good night out, there’s no denying that, and there’s plenty of flair in the way things mutate and develop. In the first half, McCune plays a loveless and unloved control freak, the kind of workmate who throws a party none of her colleagues manage to come to – except Fraser-Trumble’s character. In the second half, we see her emerge as a sleek power goddess, dripping with glamour and heartlessness. Harber, too, is someone new, blistering and treacherous. Fraser-Trumble and Huynh are versions of their earlier selves, but transfigured to the point of mutilation by everything that has preceded. And the magnetic Colley is a coffee-shop guy in the second movement instead of the decent, rather soulful intern of part one. In the play’s final movement he is, without ageing, the youthful dynamic image of know-nothing youth power, a high-voltage movie producer who treats his power like something you can shuffle and slick through as easily as sex.

The more you ponder the elements that make up Gloria the more seductive and gleaming the work seems. And the more you realise the cards it plays with are essentially allegories of fame and tokens of success and unsuccess, which have their own pathos and humour, but not much in the way of pity and terror.             

Though there is pity and terror in Gloria, this is simply a function of the spectacular central event, which it would be spoiling things to reveal – and this too can be seen as a version of the Big Bright Idea that makes a hit of a play such as this seem like something more.

None of which is to deny that there is a pretty high-level buzz of insinuation and implication in Gloria that may well keep a hard-to-please, sophisticated audience going – even if it’s all enough to drive anyone to sing with the early, incomparable Bob Dylan, “She knows there’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all” or, more starkly and more tragically, “Well, up on housing project hill it’s either fortune or fame / You must pick one or the other though neither of them are to be what they claim.”

One difficulty with Gloria is that it implies a sharper sense of fortune and fame than it does of the fact that the hill is part of a housing project. It was put to me on opening night by a man who had served governments in the highest capacity that the schematism of the play stems from its obsessive horror at what Trump is doing to America.

I wonder. Doesn’t The New Yorker with its Persian print, its wise cartoons and the fact that it has published some of the better fiction and essays of God knows who from Muriel Spark to Zadie Smith, from Nabokov to Clive James and Ken Tynan, amount to something more than the gibber factory it’s represented as here? Jacobs-Jenkins worked for the magazine in the hope of publishing fiction and ended up as the playwright of the moment instead.

It’s a profitable declension but there is, undeniably, a lustre in the puzzle this very plausible and skilfully packaged bit of stage drama presents to the mind. It does something vivid and terrible we don’t expect to see on stage – and Lewis executes it with a devastating efficiency. But I’m not sure the comedy this comedy-drama extracts from its satire is quite as comprehensive as the playwright imagines.

Let’s forget about Eugene O’Neill for a moment and his successors such as Williams and Miller and Albee. One of the striking things about Lewis’s production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria is that it will compel the attention of the kind of audience that likes contemporary high-powered long-form television, and this is saying something. Will it sustain the comparison with such things, with the best moments in the Spacey House of Cards or Breaking Bad or The Night Of or whatever your poison or criterion is?

Not really.

The New Yorker or its fictive simulacrum might have been given a bit more eternity, a bit less scratchy sand. In that respect Gloria is implicated in the superficialities it mocks. We get no sense of what The New Yorker represented under William Shawn in its golden heyday, nor of the fact that the glory never quite departed. The New Yorker happens to represent the point where the ephemera of journalism and the permanence of literature meet: it created some sort of platform between news, that perpetually fading thing, and that beauty which is a joy forever. So things stay in the mind from long ago: some of the Tynan profiles such as the one of Ralph Richardson, which rivals Boswell, some of the critical judgements of Pauline Kael or John Updike or George Steiner, the whole issues devoted to Janet Malcolm on Sylvia Plath or Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” or John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”.

It’s a funny thing for an enterprising play to be upstaged by a journalistic outfit it’s creating both a skit of and, within the skit, a turbulent melodrama. But somehow it happens here.

Jacobs-Jenkins makes his own version of The New Yorker into nothing but careerism on stilts. The upshot in terms of both his comedy and his drama is just a bit cheap – the laughs so easy, the horror so ghastly – in a funny way it presupposes that the dreadful has already happened.

It’s not hard to see Trump as despoiling everything The New Yorker has always stood for. But that America is not really a presence in this play. We don’t get much sense of what Glenda Jackson meant when she said at the Tonys – in that voice of iron – that America had always been great. Gloria would be sharper as satire, more poignant as drama, if you did.

The cast, though, and much of the production shine and shine. If Huynh was irritating beyond belief as the yapper, and Paltos, although convincing, was maybe a little too much on one note as the guy who complains, the overall effect is impressive. McCune, in the finest piece of acting we’ve seen from her in any medium, spins two contrasted publishing types – one piteous, the other beyond criticism – running the gamut from repression to rage and then back to pampered complacency. Harber flips from innocent and capable of victimisation to unspeakable in her coldness. Fraser-Trumble crosses worlds convincingly enough. As for Colley, who channels three different varieties of African-American accent with the skill of a great piano player, he’s a star.

Gloria is difficult to place. It is not a great play, but it has the pretensions to be one. On the other hand, if all our theatre was as effectively realised as this, we would be laughing, or at any rate, feeling rather more.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Loading a magazine". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.