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Theatre in Review: Office Hour (The Public Theater)

Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee. Photo: Carol Rosegg

It's typical for Public Theater productions to touch on sensitive social and political issues, but you may need to prepare yourself for Office Hour, which takes a scalpel to one of American society's most painfully exposed nerves -- the epidemic of gun murders, without apparent motive, in such places as schools, churches, and places of commerce. Playwright Julia Cho has fashioned a teacher-student conference that is fraught with implicit violence, using an inventive time frame to consider the different points at which her ticking bomb situation might explode. Office Hour is more suspenseful than any thriller, but Cho isn't after easy shocks; she wants us to think, long and hard, about why such terrible incidents happen.

The playwright sets up her tense central situation with economy: Gina, who teaches creative writing at a university, is contacted by David and Genevieve, two of her English department colleagues, about Dennis, a student who has signed up for her class. Both instructors warn her that Dennis was a sullen, silent presence in their classrooms until asked to read excerpts from his writing -- at which point he sickened and terrified everyone with passages about anal rape and mutilation. After a few such incidents, students dropped out in droves. David gave the boy a failing grade, only to find himself excoriated on every available teacher rating site and in anonymous letters to the dean. Mental health assistance is out of the question, they insist, since consent is required, and Dennis insists there is nothing wrong with him.

Gina wonders if they aren't making too much of the situation. David replies, "If I'm wrong, and we do nothing, he'll just go through life, kind of sad and messed up, but basically, as you say, harmless. He'll continue to take English classes, spreading his particular brand of joylessness throughout the department. He'll try to be a writer and then finally one day he'll wake up to the fact that he's a completely talentless hack. And he'll take stock of his life -- his empty, lonely life -- and probably kill himself. That's like the good version."

Having thoroughly unnerved us with this premise, Cho throws Gina and Dennis together for a getting-to-know-you conference that she has cooked up to feel him out. The director, Neel Keller, instantly establishes an air of menace as the boy enters -- dressed in baggy jeans, a black hoodie, a black baseball cap, and dark glasses -- and slumps into a chair. (Kaye Voyce's costumes, as always, are models of character observation.) Gina tries all sorts of icebreakers, getting nowhere; in frustration, she tells him that, whether or not he is willing to engage in conversation, he must stay in the office for the next twenty minutes. In response, he pulls out a gun and shoots her dead.

Or not. Cho reverses the action, going back a few pages, letting Gina continue to keep trying to get something, anything out of Dennis. This is the playwright's method and it proves that Office Hour isn't merely a piece of exploitation. The conference continues, with Gina digging ever more diligently behind the boy's forbidding carapace. Eventually, she will get him to speak, but, time after time, the action will reach the crisis point and violence will break out -- including, in at least one instance, an act of suicide -- before reversing itself. Knowing that the situation could blow up at any time, we are left in a perpetual state of suspense. One of these breaks plunges us into darkness, accompanied by the most sinister use of sound design (by Bray Poor) to be experienced this season. I don't believe in the concept of trigger warnings, but if any play ever justified their use, it is Office Hours.

Cho doesn't try to diagnose Dennis, although it seems clear that his immigrant Asian parents have saddled him with a backbreaking load of disapproval, and also that he feels marginalized by his ethnicity among what one imagines to be a not-very-diverse student body. One of the playwright's smarter decisions is to make Gina of Asian heritage, as well, giving her some insight into him and saving Office Hour from any white-savior narratives. Gina has plenty of problems herself, including a nonexistent writing career and a busted marriage, with little hope of anything better. Looking around her shabby office, she says, "This I share with three other adjuncts, all of us teaching writing classes, with no hope of tenure, barely getting by. But what else can we do? We're writers. We have no skills."

But Gina is nothing if not diligent, and she continues to probe, getting uncomfortably close to the source of Dennis' agony, using illustrations from her own life -- for example, describing her father, who maintained a happy yellow-face mask at work only to blow off psychic steam at home by becoming a cruel, controlling parent. Referencing Dennis' wardrobe and affect, she says, "I think you encourage it because it's the only way you know how to feel like you have some power." And, indeed, a game in which Gina role-plays a perfectly undermining Asian mother, unleashes a wave of fury from Dennis. His rage, when bared, is fearsome, but is she merely stirring him up? And can anything be done for the young man, who is fed up with "years and years of art therapy and speech therapy and therapy therapy"? Cho provides her play with any number of tragic endings; even a half-decent resolution is hard to imagine.

Office Hour is a high-tension, high-wire act that requires intensely focused performances from its two leads. Sue Jean Kim gives her strongest performance to date as Gina, whose practical, can-do manner frays badly as she races to throw a lifeline she hopes Dennis will accept, saving them both -- and, perhaps, many others -- from some awful fate. As Dennis, Ki Hong Lee dominates the first half with his silent presence, gradually letting down his guard to reveal an unthinkably damaged soul. A simple gesture, like his furtively reaching for his knapsack, is enough to fill one with dread. Theirs is a remarkable duet, performed with unyielding commitment as it builds to a furious emotional pitch.

Greg Keller offers another one of his highly professional turns as David, who carries plenty of resentment for Dennis and who enters the office at exactly the wrong moment. Adeola Role is equally solid as Genevieve, who laments that Dennis' most scurrilous writings are protected by the campus' intellectual freedom policy. In addition, Takeshi Kata's set design is a photographically exact rendering of dog-eared academic digs, with Christopher Akerlind's lighting confidently mixing illumination from fluorescent ceiling units with a late-afternoon-into-night sequence, as seen through the upstage window; the sunset effect is particularly attractive.

Office Hour's unnerving qualities are all the more surprising coming from Cho, whose previous works (among them The Piano Teacher, The Language Archive, and Aubergine) have tended toward fey, wistful premises and characters. Here, displaying an admirable combination of nerve and control, she forces us to wonder why our society produces so many damaged, and damaging, creatures. Seeing it only a couple of weeks after the Las Vegas massacre was one thing; I can only imagine how unsuspecting audience members will deal with it in the wake of the rampage in Sutherland Springs, Texas. One can imagine that some might say -- echoing the Teflon statements of gun-supporting politicians -- that this is not the right time for this play. But if the Public waited until a time that mass murder wasn't on the front page, Office Hour would never get on. -- David Barbour

(9 November 2017)

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