It’s a given in a work by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that something startling will sooner or later occur that will have you rethinking everything you thought you understood about the play.
In “Appropriate,” a young boy innocently runs downstairs wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood that he found stored away in the attic, turning an acidulous domestic comedy into something queasier. In “An Octoroon,” the projection of a lynching photograph grounds this playfully postmodern riff on Dion Boucicault’s “The Octoroon” in historical horror.
It would betray the value of the shock for me to give away what happens in “Gloria,” Jacobs-Jenkins’ stunning workplace comedy set initially in the New York offices of a magazine adjusting to the straits of the digital era. But the play, which is receiving a potent Echo Theater Company production at Atwater Village Theatre, is never quite what you think it is. As soon as you settle into a rhythm, the ground shifts and at one point practically dissolves into a sinkhole.
Such unpredictability can be chaotic in the hands of a less assured dramatist than Jacobs-Jenkins. But the micro behavior in the professional worlds he’s exposing is always so well observed that dramatic plausibility never wavers. We follow where the playwright leads, never sure where the story will end up but grateful to be in the company of such a sharp-eyed dramatic intelligence.
The play is also bitingly funny.
Had “Gloria” been filled with nothing more than the petty villainy and vexations of these ambitious young co-workers jostling for position at a time of shrinking possibility, I would have been perfectly content.
Jacobs-Jenkins, who worked as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker when he was in his 20s (he’s now 33), knows not just the magazine milieu but the character types drawn to such seemingly glamorous yet intensely competitive and generally unremunerative work.
Dean (Michael Sturgis, wonderfully throwing caution to the wind) arrives once again late for work, droopy with a hangover. But this time he has a good excuse: He was one of the few colleagues willing to attend Gloria’s housewarming.
The paltry-attended affair turned out to be a humiliating disaster. Gloria (a magnificently mousey Jessica Goldapple) is a magazine veteran who works in copy, where no one ever seems to get promoted. As such, she’s an object lesson to smart, self-possessed Ani (Alana Dietze, quietly perfect), who refers to her as an “emotional terrorist,” and stylish, self-important Kendra (an amped-up Jenny Soo), who calls her “the office freak.”
Kendra and Dean, the most cutthroat of the assistants, spar continuously. That is, when they’re not taking a break to ask Miles (Devere Roger, vividly filling the bill), the African American intern who arrives early and tunes out the bitterness with noise-canceling headphones, to run to the vending machines.
When Kendra starts talking about male oppression, Dean, a white gay man, snappishly objects: “Kendra, you're a rich Asian girl from Pasadena with a degree from Harvard. That is essentially a privileged straight white man.” She retaliates by letting him know that she knows about the ridiculous memoir he’s secretly peddling.
Lorin (Steven Strobel), a neurotically intense fact-checker, routinely has to beg these bickering assistants to keep it down. Before the ground-shaking event occurs, he suffers a mini nervous breakdown, overcome by the stress of his job and the deafening clamor outside his office. (Strobel, flailing at invisible obstacles, works himself into a hilarious lather.).
The scene changes twice after intermission, moving to a Starbucks before heading to a television production company in L.A., as the play tracks the way the media industry reacts to (i.e., tries to exploit) what happened at the magazine office on that fateful day. Amanda Knehans’ sets outline the locales with minimalist sufficiency.
The production, cleanly directed by Echo artistic director Chris Fields, concentrates on the interactions of characters who exemplify some of the worst traits in their genteelly dog-eat-dog line of work. The dialogue has a satiric sharpness, but it doesn’t preclude sympathy.
The generational, economic and ethical battles are deeply human concerns, even if the combatants are too engrossed in their own career blips to notice the bigger picture. Fields’ actors, nearly all of whom play more than one role, ably handle the tightrope between send-up and sincerity.
One question, posed at the Starbucks, captures what’s driving everyone. Nan (Goldapple, impeccably transformed), a once powerful editor at the magazine, is having coffee with Sasha (Dietze), a book editor, to casually pitch her idea for a memoir that will convert the office nightmare into a tale of personal transformation. Encouraged by Sasha’s enthusiasm, Nan asks in a mercenary deadpan that undercuts all her literary epiphanies: “What do you think I could get?”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Echo Theater Company, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 21
Information: (310) 307-3753 or EchoTheaterCompany.com