From left, Jared Corbin, Melanie Arii Mah and Martha Brigham are excellent in American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Gloria.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Comedy, tragedy and lived experience explode in ‘Gloria’

Playwright Jacobs-Jenkins asks pointed questions about telling, and owning, stories

Editor’s note: As of March 12, live performances have been canceled. Ticketholders will have the opportunity to view a recording of the show.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins wraps mirth, mayhem and petty office politics into the plot of his 2015 play “Gloria,” now onstage at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand. More crucially, he asks the question: Who “owns” an experience? The person who lives it, the person who causes it, or the person who observes it?

Work is most often an unfulfilling necessity, particularly when done in a drab Dilbert-esque warren of desks and cubicles. (This set and the magically unfolding Starbucks in Act 2 are expertly realized by designers Lawrence E. Moten III and Jacquelyn Scott.)

Ani (Martha Brigham), Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah), Dean (Jeremy Kahn) and Lorin (Matt Monaco) all labor on their interconnected hamster wheels in an especially gray trench of the magazine publishing industry. Sold on a misconception of glamour and opportunity, they fill their relentless days with aspirations and side hustles, baiting and backstabbing each other for fleeting and essentially futile opportunities for management visibility.

Only Miles (Jared Corbin), the intern with noise-canceling headphones and a built-in “sell-by” date, and the titular and oddly intense Gloria (Lauren English) seem outside the fray.

Jacobs-Jenkins artfully captures the frustration and ennui of this flat earth with its petty jealousies, dashed hopes and long-nurtured grievances in crisp no-prisoners dialogue. Director Eric Ting, artistic director at California Shakespeare Theater, applies a skillful whetstone to this expert ensemble of actors (Corbin and Monaco are ACT masters students with promising futures) to bring an even more uncomfortable edge to the aggressions, both macro and micro, that abound.

It’s all hysterically funny until suddenly, and quite shockingly, it isn’t. Curtain. Intermission.

Some characters return for Act 2, and several new ones are introduced, all embodied by the same six outstanding performers.

Nan (English, again, in a wonderfully opposite-end-of-the-spectrum characterization) was a heard, but unseen manager at the publishing house before things changed. Self-deceiving but situationally aware, she used the incident to redirect her life and then decides to really use it again. Other characters, operating in either PTSD dysfunction or self-serving opportunism, bring us awkward questions about who has the “rights” to a tragedy and if there are multiple owners, as is inevitably the case, whose rights supersede others?

“Gloria” is a startling, vivid, densely layered experience. Again and again, you think you “get” it, then Ting and Jacobs-Jenkins take you in a new direction with new questions and no answers. Those who work in offices may want to enter with caution but should clock-in nonetheless.

REVIEW

 Gloria

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F.

When: Performances after March 12 canceled.

Tickets: $15 to $110

Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org

Theater

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