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Office Hour

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 8, 2017

Greg Keller, Adeola Role, and Sue Jean Kim
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Opening just days after the mass shooting in a church near San Antonio, Texas, Julia Cho's Office Hour couldn't be more timely. Then again, with a mass killing occurring all too frequently in the United States, a play about a student who poses a major threat on a college campus appears to be, unfortunately, always well-timed. Even though the subject is regrettably and wearyingly familiar, Office Hour, now playing at the Public Theater and directed with simmering tension by Neel Keller, has the power to unnerve and infuriate as it exposes a system that by design makes it seemingly impossible to thwart the next attack.

The play begins with a frank and worried discussion among three university creative writing instructors, who have in common a troubled and troublesome student, Dennis (Ki Hong Lee), an Asian American college junior. Silent, skulking, and arrayed in a baseball cap and sunglasses, Dennis is a scary presence, and his writing is cause for even greater alarm. Genevieve (Adeola Role) had the student in an Introduction to Poetry class the previous year, and his work was filled with violent imagery about rape and bleeding eye sockets. She tried to have him removed from the class, or at the very least sent to counseling, but to no avail. The school administration denied the requests, stating that the student had posed no active threat, and as an adult, he would have to commit himself to counseling.

David (Greg Keller), the unsympathetic screenwriting instructor, taught him the following semester, and he had a similar experience. Judging from Dennis's demeanor and the scenes of torture, rape, and pedophilia in the student's scripts, David concludes that the kid is "a classic shooter."

Now he's Gina's (Sue Jean Kim) problem. Dennis is currently in her creative writing workshop, and Greg and Genevieve implore her to reach out to the student. After all, they imply that as an Asian American woman, Gina might have better luck connecting with the student and getting him the help he needs.

Most of the play that follows takes place during Gina's office hour as she attempts to draw Dennis out of his shell and determine whether or not he intends to bring harm to himself or others. I will avoid spoilers about the meeting itself and the play's (disappointingly, rather pat) conclusion, but audience members are warned in advance about the use of loud gunfire in the play. Perhaps, though, it is employed not in the ways one might expect.

Sue Jean Kim and Ki Hong Lee
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Cho's twisting and turning drama draws inspiration from the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, and the play's creative writing instructors are partly based on poet and professor Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni was so disturbed by the demeanor and creative output of a student, the eventual shooter, that she threatened to quit unless he was removed from her class. He was, but her warnings went unheeded, and the student killed 32 people.

Office Hour avoids heavy-handed polemics, focusing instead on character relationships, but it manages to address many of the recognizable points of debate whenever a mass shooting occurs. Dennis, for instance, represents, to echo an ungrammatical diagnosis given in the past week, "a mental health problem" and not necessarily a "guns situation." On the other hand, the play points out how easy it is for someone like Dennis to purchase a gun (or two) and legally carry weapons on campus.

The performances are uniformly strong, and they transcend archetypes. Kim and Lee effectively negotiate the dangerous pas de deux between the compassionate teacher and agitated student. As Gina, Kim convincingly provokes, needles, and offers empathy, and she persuasively reveals her character's own personal vulnerabilities. Lee's Dennis is suitably creepy, and we gradually see the flickers of pain and anguish as the character emerges from his oversized hoody, dark sunglasses, and baseball cap. Some of the exchanges strain credulity, particularly a bit of telephone role-playing, but the actors make even these moments palatable.

In the smaller parts Role and Keller bring admirable nuance. As the poetry instructor, Role highlights Genevieve's passive aggressiveness and willingness to give the student passing grades if it will keep the peace. Keller, on the other hand, makes David a bullying, nettling teacher, who practically dares Dennis to violently erupt.

Takesha Kata's scenic design, especially in the recreation of a claustrophobic and rundown adjunct faculty office, is recognizable to anyone who has toiled as an overworked, underpaid part-time college instructor. Christopher Akerlind's lighting is appropriately institutional and jarring as circumstances change.

Subsequent to a mass killing there is the customary expression of thoughts and prayers by elected officials, followed by media hand wringing and futile debates about gun control, and then there is silence until the next incident. Office Hour suggests that while the government will undoubtedly continue its pattern of inaction, caring individuals might be able to break the cycle of violence. Maybe, just maybe, with responsiveness and humanity we can prevent the next attack. Perhaps it's worth a shot?

Office Hour
Through December 3
Martinson Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: