In the opening moment of Julia Cho’s new play Office Hour, three university English teachers sitting at a table discuss a problematic student. His name is Dennis and he is asocial. He doesn’t speak, wears dark glasses and a ball cap under a hoody. He sits far removed from other students and writes the most horrific prose detailing vile cruelty and disgusting scenes of rape and depravity. He is clearly disturbed and a scary presence. He does his assignments and attends class, so, under the rules of the school, he can’t be flunked. One teacher, Genevieve (Sola Bamis) passes him; another, David (Corey Brill), actually does fail him, an action undercut by Dennis’s withdrawal from the class. David suspects that Dennis (Raymond Lee) is behind an anonymous barrage of bad reviews and letters of complaints to the Dean. The third teacher, Gina (Sandra Oh), will have Dennis in class next. The others wonder how she will handle the situation. She doesn’t know herself. Throughout this scene, a sense of foreboding builds. The kid is clearly disturbed. David puts it out there—what if he is a shooter? Given the insane proliferation of guns and its attending violence, especially on school campuses, there is cause for alarm and even rational fear.
The table and chairs are struck, the curtain opens for a realistic office set to glide downstage. It is the room that Gina shares with three other adjunct professors. She has scheduled a twenty-minute conference with Dennis for 4:40pm, and, in a classic display of passive-aggression, he shows up at 4:47pm, thus curtailing the interview. How this plays out is the business of the remaining time of this enthralling, seventy-minute drama.
The structure of this intense play is more complex than one might have guessed. It is now commonplace to think that there are an infinite number of alternate universes where every choice of action leads to a myriad of different ends. In the finite world of the stage, only a limited number of alternate paths can be shown. In this production, they come with shocking abruptness. Make no mistake, Office Hours is a certified thriller.
The cast, led by the award winning Sandra Oh, is excellent, and Mr. Lee, especially so. The character’s bottled up sense of rage and despair is palpable and, as revealed through the action of the play, understandable and pitiable. But his disaffection is so profound that likeability is not in the cards. Sympathy, yes, even empathy, but Dennis has miles to go before he can rejoin the human race.
The physical production of the play is excellent with scenic design by Takeshi Kata and Se Oh, lighting design by Elizabeth Harper, and costumes by Alex Jaeger. Direction by Neel Keller is spot on. There are some amazing twist and turns, done with exquisite timing. The sound design and musical composition by Peter Bayne, much like Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score for Psycho, is ideal for a thriller.
The world premiere of Office Hour runs through April 30 at South Coast Rep’s Julianne Argyros Stage.