Office Hour: Testing the Limits of Empathy for the Student That’s Trouble(d).
From the writer of last season’s Aubergine, a play that was so lovingly produced at Playwrights Horizons, Julia Cho has crafted a very different but possibly far more powerful and disturbing tale. It is one that I couldn’t imagine coming from that previous exploration of culture and heritage. Office Hour, currently being performed by a most excellent cast at The Public Theater, is much more far reaching and global in its dissertation regarding college campus gun violence and mass shootings. There is a slice of cultural connectivity that happens, but that definitely is a footnote in the greater dissection of gun culture and the fear and anxiety that now exists on school campuses nationwide.
With the terrifying news of the numerous mass shooting that have filled the news airwaves as of late, the even more distressing law in Texas that allows students to carry weapons on campus, layered on top of the campus shootings that have occurred over the past few years, one has to wonder what lawmakers are thinking (we sort of know, $$$). So, the question that this play, especially the well scripted first scene, begs to address is what resources do university professors have at their disposal when their instincts tell them that their brooding and troubled student, is more than just troubled, but possibly, trouble. He could be a shooter, one says, but I have no proof.
The professors in Office Hour, namely David, played hotly and forcibly by Greg Keller (Our Mother’s Brief Affair) and Geneviere, portrayed compassionately but panicked air by Adeola Role (Eclipsed), have had to circumnavigate the experience of teaching a certain student that they both deem ‘trouble’, and the two have gathered together to inform (or maybe confront) a third teacher, Gina, played magnificently by the powerful Sue Jean Kim (MCC’s The End of Longing). She is now the main focus to the question that hangs over all their heads, because now, she is the teacher of this student, Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) and it is up to her to figure out how she is going to deal with him and his unspoken threat.
The tension inside Gina is palpable. One gets the sense of annoyance with the other two, as if they don’t seem to get any of it in the same way she does. Does it have something to do with her culture, one that she shares with the student? Or is it the rage and frustration that comes from deep inside a woman of her color and ethnicity? There is nothing to be done with Dennis outside of addressing him face to face as he hasn’t done anything wrong or threatening …yet…, and as we watch the next scene’s set float in from the rear, crafted with excellence by Takeshi Kata (2ST’s Man from Nebraska), the air in that office space is thick with dread and anxiety. How will the Office Hour play out when the, as of yet unseen student, Dennis comes looming in through that open door?
Ki Hong Lee (Dong in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“) is impressively disturbing as Dennis, even for us audience members watching from a distance. The silent and slow moving man, dressed completely in the stereotypical black hoodie and sunglasses (great work by costume designer, Kaye Voyce – ERS/Public’s Measure for Measure) barely interacts with the inwardly frightened by brave Gina as she tries her damnedest to engage. “It’s not a disguise, it’s a costume” intuitively Gina states, as she tries with all her might to sneak herself inside his guarded psyche. She struggles, as we do, to find the internal commitment to empathize with this difficult, extremely defended, and possibly dangerous young man. It’s powerful and stressful to sit through, and when different scenarios of possible outcomes start flashing before our very eyes, playing out in our imagination even before we get the chance to witness, the panic is real and the anxiety deserved.
As directed by Neel Keller (The Nether), one of the problems with the structure is that a greater sense of Dennis’s disturbance is hard to pin down or deepen. The ideas about power, silence, and the act of making oneself unlikeable is thought-provoking, and definitely keeps us sitting on the edge of our seats, but what does it truly add up to in the end? They feel like fragmented concepts rather then a portrait slowly being pieced together. The one true scene that fully draws us into his pain, is the brilliantly constructed phone call enactment that Gina attempts using her understanding of their similar ethnic background to break through. It pops in a way that no other moment does, but sadly Dennis slips back into anger and unquestionable rage and panic too soon for a deeper analysis. I wanted more from him in that moment. Maybe we can never understand all the aspects and possible emotional complexities that bounce around inside such a man’s head, and that could be Cho’s intent, but as a piece of theatre, we hope for a deeper understanding.
The sound design by Bray Poor (Broadway/Public’s Latin History for Morons), the lighting by Christopher Akerlind (Public’s Grounded), and the fight direction by Sordelet Ink (Broadway’s Indecent) add so much to the tension that mounts moment to moment, scenario to scenario. It’s a compelling thesis on the broken people and their broken attachments and ideas that sit on the edge of our conscious threatening us with violence and death. These could come at any moment and without warning, yet we must sit with this knowledge with little to do but wait (beyond trying to get our politicians to do the right thing). It’s impossible to describe what goes down in Office Hour without giving away something that would alter the experience of being in that room. I hope none of us have to live through any of the experiences played out in Cho’s story, but it does force us to think about these professors and their students. It made me ponder what it must be like to be one of those grade school kids who have endured a lockdown at their school, even when nothing violent occurs. What will that be like growing up experiencing such a threat? What would it be like to be a teacher at any of those Texan Colleges, sitting and waiting to meet with a troubled student, and they walk in with a loaded gun in their waistband? They haven’t done anything wrong, as that act is perfectly legal in that state, but now the teacher is in a position of terror basically. Is this terrorism as well, or manipulative to be threatened in such a manner? Now what would that be like as we learn to live in this state of affairs, terrorized from within? Julia Cho is daring us to think it through to the brutal and disturbing end.