'Office Hour': Theater Review

Office Hour - Stage Production 1-Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Carol Rosegg
Visceral and timely.

A university professor tries to get through to a troubled young student in this new drama by Julia Cho, author of 'Aubergine' and 'The Language Archive.'

From the moment we see him, it's obvious that Dennis, the 18-year-old college student who figures prominently in Julia Cho's new play, Office Hour, is trouble. He looks just like the Unabomber as he walks into his professor's office for a mandatory visit with his head down, wearing both a hoodie and a baseball cap. His eyes are covered by sunglasses, and he doesn't speak a word.  

Dennis' dress and disaffected manner seem to have become part and parcel of our society, and like it or not, as we've seen from a series of horrific events, it's the Dennises who seem a hair's breadth away from turning violent.  

Office Hour, now receiving its New York premiere at off-Broadway's Public Theater, attempts to delve deeply into such a troubled psyche. Depicting the tension-filled encounter between the Asian-American Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) and his teacher Gina (Sue Jean Kim), it also touches on themes of racial identity.  

The opening scene shows Gina being warned about the young man by her colleagues David (Greg Keller) and Genevieve (Adeola Role), both of whom had Dennis in their writing courses. They describe how his work was filled with violent themes, including rape, torture and pedophilia, and about his closed-off demeanor in class. "I'll just say it," David offers. "He's a classic shooter."

Genevieve thinks that maybe Gina will be better able to communicate with Dennis because of their shared ethnicity. "You guys must have stuff in common," she points out. "Not psychologically, but, you know, a background …"

When Dennis shows up for his appointment, Gina does indeed try to get through to him, despite rude behavior that includes clipping his nails while sitting at her desk. During their wide-ranging conversation, she tries to bridge the gap by talking about her failed marriage and childhood dealing with a controlling, distant father. In return, Dennis shows her the gun he carries in his backpack, for which he says he has a permit. He even offers to let her hold it. Despite her initial fear, she soon agrees. "It's like it was made for my hand," she marvels.

That gun figures prominently in the play's action. Director Neel Keller vividly creates an atmosphere of terror, and theatergoers who are easily frightened or jittery might think twice before seeing this production.

Unfortunately, the dialogue too often feels contrived and artificial, designed to make sociological points rather than convey three-dimensional characters. And the playwright indulges too often in the sort of narrative fake-outs that are certainly shocking but eventually prove wearisome in their repetitiveness. Office Hour is most incisive in its quieter, subtler moments, such as when Dennis, displaying a heretofore unrevealed vulnerability, asks Gina, "Do you know I'm a virgin?" The long pause before she finally musters up the courage to say "Really?" speaks volumes. The two lead performers handle the tension-filled encounter with emotional precision.

There's no denying the visceral intensity of this work. It taps into the current environment in which just entering a crowded public space can induce feelings of anxiety. Office Hour may not tell us anything we don't already know about the sort of person who commits mass shootings. But it certainly makes you feel like you've been in the presence of one.

Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Greg Keller, Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee, Adeola Role
Playwright: Julia Cho 
Director: Neel Keller
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Music & sound designer: Bray Poore
Presented by The Public Theater