Dallas — Dallas Theater Center hosts the antidote for its own A Christmas Carol at the Wyly Theatre with Gloria, upstairs in the sixth floor Studio Theater. In tone and texture, the modern magazine publishing world of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Pulitzer Prize finalist, directed by Christie Vela in a regional premiere, is a perfect negative of the folksy period piece below. Downstairs it’s the grimy steel industrial revolution; upstairs it’s the conveniently cleanable glass of the information age. What links them together is the message that humanity comes up short when simply measured by the balance of business. Be advised. An antidote has to be carefully measured and specifically designed or else it becomes poison itself.
Drew Wall plods into his cubicle with the vengeful sideways sneer of someone convinced that they’re perpetually being left out. He’s Dean and as a professional assistant, he’s probably right. In this case, his ire, aggravated by his hangover, is focused on the absence of his co-workers at the previous evening’s party thrown by copy editor Gloria (Leah Spillman). Unfortunately, the only two people at work, Ani and Miles, are younger, hipper and more attractive than him. Grace Montie and Ryan Woods fulfill these fears and these roles handily for the evening.
Dean’s antagonist is Kendra (Satomi Blair). Bitter doesn’t begin to describe the rivalry. There’s a hard crust of resentment that surrounds their compulsive bickering and automatic pranks. Like addicts who have long lost the high, they are now just running fast to get nowhere. Blair, in particular, is all malevolent urgency firing Kendra’s words out on full auto, hoping for lucky hits. It’s not all Pray and Spray, as they say. She takes delicious delight in taunting Dean for not realizing that Gloria is a social pariah and no one would be at her party, obviously. This springboards her back into a litany of his inadequacies and we’re back to the races.
For comic relief from the comedic onslaught comes Lorin, the fact-checker played with pathos to spare by Michael Federico. He’s twice as far out of the running from the young and hip than the Bickering Bickersons to whom he pleads to keep it down. It’s Lorin who functions as the Greek Chorus, giving us a reality check on the knee-slapping, but nihilistic reverie. For all the sense he makes, costumer Patrick Johnson makes sure that Lorin is immediately identifiable as an annoying schlub. The costumes’ ability to undercut or confirm the characters is part of the thesis of the piece. If you can judge a book by its cover, then all you have to worry about is the cover. That’s just a fact of the post-fact world.
Sucks to be a fact-checker, then.
As far out as he is, Lorin’s still got better prospects than the titular Gloria. Though Johnson’s costume for actress Leah Spillman has done most of the work, her deadpan entrance speaks volumes. We jump to judging immediately, making up thoughts to go in her head. Interestingly, Spillman’s technique works later, as well, as a poker face for her other character, the ultra-high-status editor Nan. Though, playwright Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t surprise us as much with Nan as he does with Gloria, Spillman seeks for the same depth for both characters. In this respect, she and Federico are in fine form here.
The stark steel-and-glass set by designer Dahlia Al-Habieli takes only a drop of Aaron Johansen’s lights to be overwhelmingly bright. The soaring height and angelic white are reinforced ironically by John M. Flores’ opening sound cue: an operatic Gloria in Excelsis. Only there’s no Deo for the inhabitants of this Divine Comedy. So, they’re less like Sisyphus rolling a rock that’ll just roll back down again and more like rats who’ll continue in their mazes till they figure out who moved their cheese, to borrow the popular pablum. That’s just what happens when the deus is ex. All we're left with is the machina.
And the machine don’t care.
Perhaps playwright Jacobs-Jenkins leads us down, Virgil-like, into the horrors so that we can ascend again. The intention of the toxic environment is to reveal the glimpses of humanity in these cutthroat characters, but it’s a risky proposition. The unapologetic snark of these seemingly irredeemable characters may attract us to the wrong qualities. Everyone knows that Dante’s Paradiso isn’t nearly as interesting as his Inferno. That partially explains why the second act—which takes quite the turn after a big shocker before intermission—doesn’t have the crackle of the first. Not to mention, it’s a tonal minefield for director Vela.
You never know what’s going to happen when you wade in the water. Could be saved or could be snagged. It depends on what you’re fishing for.
This antidote may leave you shaken, not stirred.