Theater review by Helen Shaw
Be warned: Julia Cho’s school-shooting play Office Hour is physically difficult to sit through. Part of that reaction is a judgment on its quality; moments meant to be serious are accidentally comic, for instance. But you may also be experiencing something like an actual fight-or-flight response.
Cho borrows many of her play’s details from the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. A withdrawn student, Dennis (Ki Hong Lee), terrorizes his English department with barely suppressed rage and gruesome writing. Past professors (Greg Keller and Adeola Role) warn his latest teacher, Gina (Sue Jean Kim), to expect the worst, but Gina refuses to flinch. Instead, she insists that Dennis come to her office for private work. (The staggeringly brave poet Lucinda Roy actually did this at Virginia Tech.) Cho’s rendition of that meeting is by turns smug and wrongheaded. Although Gina is presented as a hero, her actions are almost all harmful: She tries to reach Dennis by first oversharing (“Did I ever tell you about my dad?”), then telling him he’s unlikable, then claiming emotional kinship with him because she has anger too. She hugs him. She makes him participate in role-playing about his mother. She’s not a psychologist, but she is a writer whose parents didn’t support her writing, so she’s qualified to do this, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong.
When the sullen, homicidal Dennis has had enough of Gina’s personal instruction, he shoots her. The room goes black, the stage is reset, and the scene rewinds to just before he draws his gun. This happens again and again, blackout after blackout, someone dying each time. Cho’s All in the Timing–style conceit spirals into absurdity, and the audience laughs uncertainly as different characters jockey to shoot the prop gun in a flurry of alternate killings. These repetitions build to a terrible finale, in which campus-wide slaughter is deployed as a dramatic climax. For those of us who teach at a university—or who go to churches or theaters or any public space—this is literally our nightmare. Even now, days after I saw the play, its borrowed trauma still grips me. If this horror were in the service of penetrating insights about school shootings, it might be valuable, even necessary. But Office Hour doesn’t earn its ending; it has nothing to teach. Lock the door. Push the desk against it. I want to protect you from this.
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Julia Cho. Directed by Neel Keller. With Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through Dec 3.
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