Monday, November 13, 2017

107 (2017-2018): Review: OFFICE HOUR (2017-2018)

“A Classic Shooter”

Plays questioning the horror of gun violence in America are very rare; on that point, then, Julia Cho’s Office Hour, at the Public Theater, deserves attention for even considering the matter. Whether its approach is particularly helpful, though, is something else.
Gregg Keller, Adeola Role, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
At the beginning, we meet three young adjuncts, all college English Department writing instructors, discussing what to do about a problematic student. The teachers are David (Greg Keller), Genevieve (Adeola Role), and Gina (Sue Jean Kim).
Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The student is Dennis (Ki Hong Lee), a seriously disturbed young man who refuses to talk, and hides his face by wearing large sunglasses and keeping his baseball cap pulled down low under his hoodie. His writing is filled with horrifically violent images, like one that David quotes: “I’m going to ass fuck you till you bleed . . . Dad.” We understand there’s far worse.
Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The rules of free expression in a writing class, of course, prevent overt censoring of a student’s work, so the teachers struggle not only to improve the quality of Dennis’s writing but to reach him on a personal level. Since Dennis and Gina are both Korean-American, Genevieve hints to Gina that their shared “background” might be helpful. Reluctantly, Gina agrees to see what she can do during her office hour when she sees students for counseling.
Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Dennis shows up for his 20-minute conference (a class requirement); if you watch the real-time clock on the wall, you’ll notice the meeting ends up taking over an hour. (The play itself is 90 minutes long.) What begins as an earnest, even saintly effort on Gina’s part to address Dennis’s attitude and writing becomes an extended therapy session in which both analyst and analysand find a few things in common.

Their session even includes a pretend phone conversation, with Gina speaking as a domineering Korean-accented mother to her angst-ridden son. And, yes, Gina, who’s been in therapy herself, conveniently has problems, of her own.
Ki Hong Lee, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Dressed by costumer Kaye Voyce in skin-tight jeans, Gina pushes student-teacher boundaries, as when she hugs Dennis with compassion and he misreads her intentions, or when she talks to him while lounging inappropriately on the office table.

Things get really complicated, though, when Dennis reaches into his backpack and withdraws a gun. 
Ki Hong Lee, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
What follows ends in a shocking moment, after which there’s a blackout. Lights up and we realize that what just happened didn’t happen after all. Cho uses a similar device (reminiscent of the “Sure Thing” segment of David Ives’s All in the Timing) several more times, assisted by Bray Poor’s sound design, which only creates a “boy who cried wolf” feeling. 
Ki Hong Lee, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
If we already know that what we’re seeing is going to be subverted by the suggestion that its outcome is only potential, not actual, then the shock dissipates and we wait for the action to return to the original reality that drives the play proper. Thus even the rather extended scene when darkness descends and the audience is supposed to think the whole place is being riddled with bullets draws a blank, although I’m aware some spectators were frightened. 

Cho’s writing is sharp enough to keep us listening and watching despite the play’s trickiness but, even without the rewind stratagem, both Dennis and Gina become increasingly hard to accept as real people. They come off instead as artificial figures created to explore—but certainly not resolve—issues of identity and violence.

Question: how could a scary student like Dennis, lacking not only talent but spelling and grammatical skills, and demonstrably the reason for other students dropping out of his class, be permitted to maintain his status?

Another question concerns Dennis’s unsurprising explanation of his behavior, which blames it on his lifelong feeling of rejection because of how he looks. When he does remove his hat and shades, however, he appears as ordinary as any young man. This implies either that his self-image is tragically skewed or that director Neel Keeler made a conscious decision not to alter his appearance. Whatever the answer, it’s self-defeating.

Also questionable is Gina’s sacrificial behavior in trying to reach Dennis; while certainly possible, it lacks plausibility. Empathy is one thing; self-endangerment is crazy. Why, especially given her part-time, underpaid, no-benefits position, does she feel the need to go so far with such a troubled, untalented student?

Based on what we see, it’s never clear how rewinding the action to see if something else might have been said or done could have prevented the bloodshed. If Dennis was intent on carrying out what he does (or might be doing), it’s impossible to see what would have stopped him. He even says: “What I have, this feeling I carry, I don’t have to keep carrying it. So years and years of art therapy and speech therapy and therapy therapy. Nothing took the feeling away.”

This only makes Gina’s suggestion near the end that he take advantage of the school’s free therapy program that much more ludicrous and out of character.

The gun issue—perhaps inspired by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre—is addressed mainly by presenting a mentally unbalanced, violence-obsessed student with access to firearms. There’s no discussion of gun rights or anything like that; in fact, the play seems to be more about the problem of what teachers with seriously disturbed students like Dennis can do about it in a free and open society than it does about gun violence.

Under Neel Keeler’s direction, Office Hour is given a well-acted production, with Sue Jean Kim offering a multi-emotional performance. Takeshi Kata’s design combines a bare downstage—other than a counter-like table and chairs at the opening—with a realistically detailed office; the latter is built on a platform and placed on an angle so that, when Christopher Akerlind’s lights come up on it, a downstage corner points at us as the room rolls ominously forward.

Tragically, mass shootings will continue, on campus and off, whether we pay close attention or not. Office Hour does little to advance the conversation other than, for those who fall for it, to give them the momentary thrill of being in the presence of a maniac and what it might be like to be in a theatre with gunshots going on all around.


Office Hour
Public Theater/Martinson Hall
425 Lafayette St.,NYC
Through December 3