Written by Scotty Keister
Paranoid fantasy meets uncomfortable reality; welcome to Office Hour, Julia Cho’s searingly smart and tense play at South Coast Rep’s Julianne Argyros Stage. Exploring the world of school shooters, outcasts, fringe-dwellers, rejects, ethnic alienation, the dispossessed and the unwanted, Office Hour focuses a keen and probing eye on one office encounter between a college teacher and her disturbed – and disturbing – student, who are both Asian Americans. Directed by Neel Keller, the play’s gradual building of tension never lets up, frequently exploding with sudden gunfire and violence. Noise aside, the heart of the story is an exploration of how easy it is to misjudge and categorize those we don’t understand and thus fear.
The play begins with some exposition as teachers Genevieve (Sola Bamis) and David (Corey Brill) recount to Gina (a wonderful Sandra Oh) their experiences in their writing classes with an Asian American student, Dennis, a dark and brooding type who sits in the back of classrooms wearing a baseball cap, hoody and sunglasses. He never says a word, but he writes horrendously brutal and sexually violent scenarios that terrify the other students and trigger these teacher’s paranoid fantasies. Is Dennis a psychopath waiting to explode? What can they do about him? He refuses counseling. He doesn’t interact. He’s got all the classic symptoms of a school shooter. Their hope is that since Gina is also Asian American, she may be able to get him to talk. However, Gina is not sure if Dennis is that big of a problem. He’s quiet and a loner, but is he really dangerous? She’s about to find out.
So begins her office meeting with Dennis (Raymond Lee). The office is a dingy room with
aging furniture: table, desk, chairs, bookcases and a large window, all rendered with stark authenticity by scenic designers Takeshi Kata and Se Oh. Dennis finally shows up, late, and Gina is burdened with the task of breaking his silence, to see what makes him tick. Sandra Oh’s Gina is a skilled and perfectly nuanced piece of acting that pretty much carries the bulk of the play, since during the first half Dennis says next to nothing. Raymond Lee’s Dennis is a fearsome being: small, dark and wrapped up tight like a lurking cobra. The slightest nod or twitch of his head signifies volumes. When he finally does speak, it’s whispers or grunts until finally the fuse burns down and Dennis lets loose.
The first time the gun comes out of Dennis’s large backpack, the rapidity is shocking. But this is just the play’s way of indulging Gina’s worst-case-scenario, paranoid fantasies. Blackout. Then we’re back to a more measured reality. But it will happen again and again, and each time the audience is suckered in because we are in Gina’s shoes, and we share the same paranoia. What at first seems like a gimmick becomes the play’s way of suggesting the difference between what we fear and what is real. The reality is, Dennis is a lost person, a wounded animal. He is alone and full of pain and despair, and no one has bothered to ever reach out to him. At one point, he talks about the great Pacific Garbage Patch, an enormous mass of floating plastic and assorted trash in the ocean that everyone just ignores because nobody can figure out how to fix it. Gina is unwilling to pass Dennis off as a cypher that can’t be read, and her persistence is ultimately rewarded with an explosion of emotion, which sets off some painful memories of her own.
At first we see only the harsh prejudice inherent to the Asian American experience, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much the WWII Japanese internment camps of California contributed to an ongoing sense of isolation and mistrust in the Asian American community. Dennis says, “They only want who they want. They don’t let anyone else in.” But this play has a larger canvas to work on. Alienation, desperation, isolation, bullying, and prejudice toward anyone who is “different” are not strictly ethnic problems. Most of our school shooters are alienated middle class white boys. We ask ourselves over and over, “Why did no one see this coming? Why didn’t anyone reach out to them?” Putting aside the gun issue – which is only briefly addressed – the play makes clear through its skill at triggering the audience’s own paranoid fantasies that it’s easier to push aside and punish those we fear than it is to try to understand them and perhaps attempt to pull the thorn.
Julia Cho’s script is simple, honest, intelligent and always on point. Nary a word is wasted. Sandra Oh, if you only know her from“Grey’s Anatomy,” is a revelation. Oh and Raymond Lee’s performances are worth the price of admission. Running a terse seventy minutes, “Office Hour” is a rapid excursion into the depths of a personal hell that reveals much about ourselves. But hey, there’s a good deal of humor there too. It’s not all dark and gloomy, but what’s there is well justified.
The show runs, Tuesdays through Sundays, until April 30th. Be warned: There are loud gunshots on and off stage.
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