Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of Weightless
Dennis (played with seething restraint by Daniel Chung) is an English major who is the subject of the discussion by three of his professors that opens the play. David (Jeremy Kahn) had Dennis in his poetry class where, in an assignment to write a villanelle (a French poetic form), he includes the line "the art of ass-raping isn't hard to master." Genevieve (Kerry Warren) shares her fear over his "super detailed revenge scenarios" and laments for the students who dropped her class out of fear.
But Gina (Jackie Chung, no relation), wonders "what if he's totally harmless and we're just being paranoid?" and reaches out to the young man during her office hour in the hope of guiding him toward a more productive (and socially acceptable) approach to life. In an attempt to break through the carapace of Dennis's ominous silence, Gina tells him that she too once went through a period of not talking that she found strangely empowering. With some additional pleading ("Why not write something that connects, instead of something that repels?"), Dennis slowly begins to reveal himself, bit by bit, as something more than a frightening potential school shootereven though his backpack is filled with handguns and ammo.
What could be an ordinary drama of a troubled teen and the concerned adult who reaches out to him is, in Julia Cho's highly skilled hands, transformed into something far richer and more deeply layered. Just as the issues surrounding school shootings (mental health, bullying, the Second Amendment, a culture of violence and anger, the rage of young men...) and complex and multi-varied, so is the approach Cho takes to this (sadly) evergreen social issue.
Cho, to her credit, doesn't take the easy path here. Or the steep, slippery, dangerous path, either. In fact, she doesn't take one path at all, choosing instead to splinter her narrative along many different possible routes. It's always easy in hindsight to see the danger signals: the loner obsessed with guns and revenge, expressing his anger through rants on social media. "How could we have missed the signs?" we wonder after each fresh horror. But for every angry young man whose rage is released in a hail of bullets, there are many who choose different paths, and these rarely (if ever) are examined by the media.
There are hints of these alternate realities spread throughout Office Hour, but they reach their zenith in the play's final moments, when a barrage of alternately violent, terrifying, comforting, and confusing scenes hit you at a pace that seems designed to mimic automatic gunfire.
Director Lisa Peterson (who also helmed the newly timely Watch on the Rhine) has once again assembled a fine cast and guided them to taut, nuanced performances. The pacing is spot on, never lagging once, and that final theatrical montage of horror is spectacular, packing a play's worth of blocking into about 120 seconds. As Dennis, Daniel Chung shows his anger in subtle ways that play large against his silencea slow nod of the head, a furious unzipping of his backpack, a hard set of his frowning lips. Jackie Chung is appropriately maternal, especially in the scene where she encourages Dennis to open up by roleplaying a phone call to Dennis with herself in the role of tiger mom.
There are no easy answers presented here. And though Berkeley Rep certainly has impeccable timing when it comes to plays that address social issues, perhaps the saddest aspect of this is the fact that practically anytime a play about a school shooting is produced, it would likely premiere within weeks or months of mass murder on a campus.
Office Hour, through March 25, 2018, in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets from $45-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets are available online at www.berkeleyrep.org, or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949.