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Theater Review: 'Office Hour'

The production benefits from fine production works by Elizabeth Harper, Peter Bayne, and Alex Jaeger.
Photo credit:
Ben Horak/SCR

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

Remember when teaching was considered a safe, secure job mocked by engineering majors and wannabe entrepreneurs with the above slogan?

Times have changed. Random violence has come to schools, “safe and secure” are no longer universals there, and difference (racial, cultural, you name it) has become the scapegoat cause for almost every negative occurrence.

Inspired (if that’s quite the word) by the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, playwright Julia Cho explores a teacher’s perspective on the fear of violence in the world premiere of her new play “Office Hour.” Commissioned by South Coast Repertory and directed by Neel Keller, it plays there through April 30.

In this play, Cho posits not a random shooter but a scary Asian student: a disheveled boy in a hoodie, a baseball cap and dark glasses who sits hunched alone in a corner of the class, not speaking at all, even to the professor.

In the opening scene, three adjunct creative writing instructors discuss the lone wolf, Dennis (Raymond Lee). Two of them – David (Corey Brill) and Genevieve (Sola Bamis) have already had him in a class. Both found his writing – violent and bloody, full of descriptions of rape – scared other students, even inspiring some to drop.

David thinks Dennis has a “classic shooter” profile: “Painfully socially awkward. Totally isolated. Delusional – he thinks he’s a great writer. Obsessed with violence. Most likely no history of documented mental illness. He could just waltz into a Dick’s Sporting Goods and arm himself to the teeth.”

And both have been told by their dean that nothing can be done in the absence of proof that Dennis poses a real threat.

This semester, he’ll be in a creative writing class taught by Gina (brilliantly played by Sandra Oh), and Genevieve hopes she’ll be able to reach him because “you guys must have stuff in common – not psychologically but, you know, a background.”

As part of Gina’s class, students are required to meet with her during office hours; 25% of their grade depends on it. Most of the play’s action takes place during Gina’s office hour meeting with Dennis. It’s a tense, difficult encounter, Gina trying to draw him out verbally, Dennis mostly uncooperative, until she finally speaks to him from a familiar place – racial marginalization.

It’s a delicate verbal dance, well written, wonderfully acted and sensitively directed, that finally illuminates the pain of living untouched by another human hand or psyche. Be aware that there are shocking parts I won’t reveal, but this play is a thought-provoking excursion into psychic emptiness.

Takeshi Kata and Se Oh have created a spare set with clever embellishments. The production benefits from fine work by lighting designer Elizabeth Harper, composer/sound designer Peter Bayne and costumes by Alex Jaeger.

The Details

“Office Hour” runs through April 30, 2016 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm

Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org