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ACT’s ‘Gloria’ reflects on a bad day at the office

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Gloria,” now at American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand theater, crackles with familiarity. Maybe it’s the office setting. We’ve all either worked at someplace like this — desks crammed way too close to your co-workers’, a shared printer/copier, a dizzying spectrum of personalities — or we’ve been forced to conduct business in a similarly inhospitable environment.

Office space is, in effect, our other home. When we see a living room set for a play or an office set, we figure we already know a little of what will go on. That’s true with “Gloria” up to a point. As we become immersed in this particular office (with an excellent set by Lawrence E. Moten III), a corner for editorial assistants at a New York magazine, the rhythms feel true for both life and for stage comedy.

Everyone seems young, and the cubicles thrum with the manic energy of each person thinking they’re smarter or hipper than the rest and just a step or two away from achieving domination of one kind or another. These are sharp-edged 20somethings hatching plans to fulfill ambitions and leave this particularly toxic workplace behind.

Ani (Martha Brigham) seems the most adjusted because she’s got coding skills and could work anywhere. Dean (Jeremy Kahn) is drinking too much as he faces down his 30th birthday and is beginning to feel he’ll be stuck as an assistant forever, while Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) is making every play she can to be noticed as a writer and lifestyle influencer.

These three laugh and fight and gossip and taunt the way that only close co-workers can. They know how to push each other’s buttons, and their crazed interactions keep pulling the head fact checker, Lorin (Matt Monaco), out of his office with pleas for them to shut up and get to work.

Director Eric Ting, who previously collaborated with Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Rep on “An Octoroon,” establishes a propulsive rhythm to what is seemingly an average day at the office. The dialogue is lightning fast, and it doesn’t take long to suck us into the office drama involving secret manuscripts, the intern’s last day and the frustrations of feeling that work is sucking all the life out of your life.

There are barbs aimed at millennials and boomers, jealous tirades and harsh confrontations, all before the lunch hour. It’s as if David Mamet, with his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and workplace snark, were writing a sitcom for the CW.

But Jacobs-Jenkins has plans to go deeper into the office dynamic and what it means to share a formative experience with people who are neither friends nor family. We spend a great deal of time with these people, and what do we really know about them?

The less said about the plot and its intense turns, the better. Ting’s superb cast, which also includes Lauren English and Jared Corbin, is there for every twist with performances so detailed that we grasp these people immediately. Many of the actors play multiple roles, and they’re all fantastic, imbuing the characters with humor and heart, weirdness and brutality.

“What is this place … why are we like this?” one character screams, and they’re good questions not easily answered. We are humans who must work with other humans, and sometimes we know their names and who they actually are. Other times not.

“Gloria” is fascinating, funny and frightening. How we work says a lot about who we are as individuals and as a society. The thought-provoking “Gloria,” for all its exquisite theatricality and execution, is not a flattering or hopeful portrait.


‘GLORIA’

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, presented by American Conservatory Theater

Through: April 12

Where: The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco

Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission

Tickets: $15-$110 (subject to change); 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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