Long Wharf Theatre
Long Wharf Theatre is currently presenting Julia Cho’s dark and disturbing play, “Office Hour.” A co-production with Berkley Repertory Theatre, this work is set at a college campus, focusing on a deeply troubled, isolated student and the professor who is trying to reach out to him. “Office Hours” plays out like a nightmarish fever dream, filled with gruesome imagery and distorted conversations. In the program notes for the show, Julia Cho is quoted as saying that she was inspired to write “Office Hour” after the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. In this play, she is trying to shine a light on a troublesome subject: how does one become a mass murderer and how can that pattern possibly be stopped?
With a four member cast, who does its valiant best with this material, including some distasteful dialogue and topics, “Office Hour,” is ultimately a play that is pretty hard to take and even harder to recommend. Still, what the playwright accomplishes here, alongside her astute director Lisa Peterson, cannot be easily dismissed, either. “Office Hour” certainly pushes the envelope exploring this complex and difficult subject and is quite unlike anything I have ever experienced in a theater before.
The play, which runs 85 minutes in one act, begins with three teachers discussing a reclusive student named Dennis. Dennis is an English major, but his writing is beyond offensive and objectionable and it has caused both the professors and his fellow students to stay away from him. It is ultimately up to an adjunct professor named Gina to try and break through Dennis’ shell.
The majority of “Office Hour” is set in a classroom where the professor Gina is conducting a conference with Dennis about his work and behavior in her class. Not to give too much away, but what follows are a series of short, explosive scenes that illustrate every possible outcome of how this student evaluation can go horribly, tragically wrong. One thing that must be mentioned about the two lead characters are that they are both Asian-American and it is because of this possible kinship that Gina thinks that she might get through to Dennis.
“Office Hour” does strain some credibility of why an adjunct professor at a university would ever want to spend so much time with a student who may have the makings of a mass murderer. Nonetheless, this is the scenario that the playwright has mapped out in “Office Hour” and one can only accept this premise as Julia Cho’s conceit to enact the frequently off-putting scenes and dialogue between teacher and student.
One of the distinct assets of “Office Hour” is the high caliber of acting by the four member cast. Jackie Chung is excellent as Gina and she does all that she can to make a case for why her character chooses to invest so much time in what seems like a hopeless cause. As Dennis, Daniel Chung is absolutely chilling, as he contorts his face into an almost permanent scowl, and costume designer Maggie Morgan has dressed this character from head to toe in black, including a hat and dark sunglasses. It must be mentioned that it is largely the talents of these two actors that make the often terrifying scenes between the characters somewhat palatable.
“Office Hour,” which also features fine performances by Jeremy Kahn and Kerry Warren in supporting roles, has recently been seen at the Public Theatre in New York City and, as mentioned, this production will soon have a run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It is admittedly admirable what Julia Cho is trying to accomplish here, namely showing how angry a person can get before they could possibly lash out at the world, and whether someone like this can be saved. Still, “Office Hour” is unpleasant in the extreme and it is certainly an extremely heavy and disturbing work. This show takes the audience on quite a ride through the dark side of a timely subject, but whether one wants to put themselves through such an experience is ultimately the choice of every potential theatergoer.
“Office Hour” continues performance at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through February 11, 2018. For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.
Photo: (L-R): Jackie Chung and Daniel Chung
Photo by T. Charles Erickson