Dennis, the sullen and unsettling student at the center of Julia Cho’s play “Office Hour” is strongly reminiscent of the real-life student Cho Seung-Hui, an English major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute who killed 32 people on campus in 2007.
I was working at CNN then and persuaded his playwriting teacher to let me read the plays he had written for class. There was violence in his writing, and some foul and angry scenarios that had repelled his classmates. His teacher was understandably defensive – he couldn’t have known the plays were anything but the sophomoric fantasies of an aspiring writer who demonstrated no special talent.
In “Office Hour,” Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) is a would-be writer, and an outcast whose stories repulse his classmates. “Perhaps it was the combination of necrophilia, incest and cannibalism in an assignment that was supposed to be autobiographical that really pushed the class over the edge,” says Gina (Sue Jean Kim), his writing teacher.
In the first scene, two colleagues who previously had Dennis in their classes warn Gina that Dennis is not just garden-variety “troubled” – “this kid is trouble,” David (Greg Keller) tells her: “Painfully socially awkward. Totally isolated. Delusional—he thinks he’s a great writer. Obsessed with violence.” Dennis never says a word in class, or outside of class, to anybody. David believes the best-case scenario is that Dennis will kill himself; worst case “he takes as many people with him as possible.”
Genevieve (Adeola Role), Gina’s other colleague, says that maybe Gina will be able to reach him because “you guys must have stuff in common—not psychologically but, you know, a background.” Although there’s no direct mention in the script of what specifically that background is, there are a few lines that indicate both characters are from immigrant families, and both performers are Asian-American. (Cho Seung-Hui had emigrated with his family from South Korea when he was eight.)
So, Gina invites Dennis to see her during her office hour, which leads us to expect the usual formula of such set-ups: Although it will be a challenge at first, Gina will eventually break through to Dennis, who will slowly flower under her tutelage. Within a few minutes of his arrival, however, Dennis takes out a gun and shoots Gina dead.
But then there is a blackout, and when the lights come back on, they are back to talking as before – or, more precisely, Gina is back to talking and Dennis to ignoring her.
As it turns out, with the exception of the shooting and some later variations of it, as well as other similarly self-consciously theatrical touches, “Office Hour” does follow the standard teacher-student formula. Dennis does start talking.
Through their conversation, the playwright posits a handful of intriguing insights into what might motivate somebody like Dennis, much of it about stigma and the fight to overcome it. People who refuse to socialize or even speak, for example, may in fact feel alienated and powerless, but their silence is not necessarily an effort to disappear; quite the opposite. They might be forcing those around them to give them attention (even if it’s negative), and thus gain a measure of control
Largely, though, in “Office Hour,” Julia Cho doesn’t seem to be seriously exploring a terrifying national trend so much as capitalizing on it. She undermines her evident interest in alienation and connection, by creating interaction that too often doesn’t ring true. The meta-theatrical shooting is not even the most unrealistic moment in the play. Gina opens up to Dennis – about her difficult father; about her divorce — in a way that is hard to imagine a teacher doing, especially one who doesn’t know her pupil yet and has been warned about his behavior. And then, Dennis, doubly-shrouded in baseball cap and hoodie while wearing sunglasses, has apparently been completely silent and withdrawn for years. When he expresses himself, through his writing, it’s been silly deliberate shockers about cannibalism and incest. So, even if we grant that a very troubled teenager could be exceptionally intelligent and articulate, certainly grandiose, it seems dubious that some of the first words he speaks aloud would be: “The way I am is a rational response to the situation I’m in…Society needs people like me just as much as it needs the leaders, the celebrities, the admired.”
It doesn’t help that director Neel Keller seems inattentive to trivial but tell-tale matters of verisimilitude: Would a teacher at an official school activity sit in a quasi lotus position atop her desk?
It is possible to argue that “Office Hour” is ill-timed – that, had the play not been opening just a few days after yet another record-breaking mass shooting, it would be easier to appreciate, say, Julia Cho’s structurally inventive experiments in multiple-choice/alternative narratives, or the ethereal moments created by the design team. But, given the almost 300 mass shootings in the United States so far this year alone, a play that uses gun violence in the opaque and overly clever way that “Office Hour” does will surely be ill-timed for some time to come.
Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Neel Keller
Featuring Greg Keller, Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee, and Adeola Role
Scenic Design: Takeshi Kata
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Original Music & Sound Design: Bray Poor
Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets: $75-$150. $20 lottery
Office Hour is scheduled to run through December 3