Review: Office Hour by Julia Cho (Berkeley Rep)

Guest post by Thomas Lee

Mass shootings have sadly become so commonplace that any play about gun violence suddenly absorbs a jolt of relevance that the playwright perhaps didn’t originally anticipate.

But in Julia Cho’s unnerving “Office Hour,” now in previews at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, the story seems less concerned about politics than alienation–from our jobs, from our classes, from our families, from ourselves. We are creatures that need to connect yet prove incapable of doing so. We long for intimacy but wind up firing emotional blanks.

The play begins with two creative writing professors trying to convince colleague Gina (Jackie Chung) to speak to a troubled student named Dennis (Daniel Chung).

To say Dennis is creepy would be an understatement. He doesn’t say a word in class. His stories contain disturbing images of rape and violence. The professors fear he might be a mass killer in the making.

“I’ve taught writing to prisoners,” one prof told Gina. “Murderers. THIS kid scares me.”

Reluctantly, Gina summons Dennis to her office. What follows over the next hour or so is an ever shifting power dynamic between student and teacher, who is pretty troubled herself.

I’m not giving anything away to say that Dennis, who bares a strong resemblance to the Unabomber when you first see him, does carry a gun. But I wish Cho wasn’t so literal. In her attempt to connect the play to current events, she loses something potentially powerful. We don’t need to see a gun to sense the unsettling anger in Dennis that seems ready to explode at any moment.

The real question is not whether Dennis will kill someone but rather why he hasn’t already pulled the trigger. He has the makings of a bloodthirsty killer (hell, he even dresses like one) but yet you get the sense that Dennis is not truly dead inside, despite his insistence to the contrary. What truly separates the committed killer from just another troubled, angry young man?

Cho, a rising Asian American playwright, infuses this work with a great deal of cultural empathy and sensitivity. It’s no accident that both Gina and Dennis are both Asian American even though the mass shooters have been mostly white. In doing so, Cho accomplished something rare, almost subversive: mainstreaming Asian Americans into the national conversation without anyone really noticing. The mass shooters can be anyone but the alienation that drives such murderous impulses can be unique to specific socio-economic groups.

“Office Hour” is imperfect and ultimately unsatisfying. But Cho’s thoughtful and empathetic approach to her characters makes this play well worth seeing, especially during these troubling times.

The Godfather of Asian American Theatre

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