Michael L. Quintos
OnStage Los Angeles Critic
COSTA MESA, CA - Sadly, much more frequent than any of us would like, it seems we can't turn on the news or read a social media feed without reading about another senseless tragic mass shooting somewhere in America, where lives are lost and families are ripped emotionally apart. This is, of course, followed by endless anger-infused debate over why and how such things keep happening across our cities, and about who and what exactly is to blame for such things to occur with such volatile, seemingly unstoppable frequency. Suggested solutions to curb such acts also produce even more heated arguments, often leading to nowhere—as, yet again, one more violent occurrence flashes into the news cycle.
More than ever, Americans are living in a state of fear.
It's a fear of danger at even the safest corner. A fear that an "other" will shoot haphazardly into a random crowd. A fear that we won't know what to do when faced with inescapable situations.
Although most people try to live their lives without giving in to this fear, it's nonetheless still there, in the back of our minds. It's not much of a stretch to say that we now live in an unprecedented "new" normal—one that seemed like it was only previously the every day of foreign countries on the other side of the planet. Today, though, the blinders to such random acts of horrific violence in our backyards can't shield any of it away, as we are forced to worry much more about going to work or school and having to face mentally and emotionally (and, sometimes, even first-hand) that all too-often repeated new nomenclature that has burrowed into our collective terror: "active shooter."
We have to ask ourselves... How will we be when we are trapped in such a circumstance? Do our primal instincts for survival kick-in automatically? How do we prevent such situations from even happening? Is the answer to be more vigilant? To be more hyper-aware and attuned to those around us and to report every little sign and suspect behavior we observe like an alarm bell sounding off—even if it means offending whole races, entire cross-sections of people, or even peculiar (though likely harmless) individuals most of whom fear the same thing? Do we continue the otherwise despicable practice of profiling people, looking for "abnormal" signs that we cling to as forewarning... when most of it is just, well, stereotyping in the guise of putting the safety of the public-at-large as a priority?
Such is the subject searingly explored in playwright Julia Cho's intensely jarring new play OFFICE HOUR which continues its exceptional world premiere performances at Orange County's Tony Award winning regional theater South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through April 30, 2016. For almost 80 gripping, heart-pounding minutes without an intermission, Cho and director Neel Keller tap into this "new" fear in the form of Gina, a divorced adjunct university professor brilliantly played with quiet yet powerful grace by Sandra Oh (of TV's Grey's Anatomy, making her SCR debut).
When we first meet Gina, she is sitting in a coffee shop with two teaching colleagues, Genevieve (Sola Bamis of TV's Stitchers and Mad Men) and David (Corey Brill of TV's The Walking Dead and many SCR plays). In the midst of what appears to be a serious discussion, all three look palpably worried.
Gina is getting an earful from her co-workers about a quiet, mysterious student in her creative writing class, Dennis (Raymond Lee), whom they feel is a deeply troubled, potentially dangerous student who has a supposed history of mental illness. While many students with active imaginations have come through their classes before, Dennis, they feel, poses enough of a warning sign to merit this impromptu coffee summit to discuss how to deal with him.
"This kid's different. This kid's not normal," Gina is warned.
Genevieve and David's list of grievances is quite long. Apparently, there have been several complaints against Dennis not only from fellow classmates but also from past and present teachers themselves, pointing to his disturbing, excessively ultra-violent writing submissions that go beyond what someone can confidently construe as works from an imaginative storyteller.
Both Genevieve and David have reached their limits and are actually now scared for their safety and the safety of their students. They encourage Gina to check into him—perhaps since both she and Dennis are, um, Asian American (oh, the racist-lite implications of this bit of their exchange killed me)—but, at the same time, they also warn her to be absolutely careful. As in, to be careful for her life.
To them, with absolute certainty, Dennis fits the description of someone who you'll eventually hear about in the news after it's much too late and the bodies have piled up—and yet... it's all right there in his writings.
With that, Gina—somewhat reluctantly, but armed with the idealistic, admirable aspirations of our best, well-meaning educators—decides to schedule a "mandatory" 20-minute appointment with Dennis to see her during her office hours, those brackets of time normally set aside for students to have some one-on-one face time with their professor outside of class.
The scene changes to a visibly annoyed Gina sitting in her office (the main set for most of the play, designed by Takeshi Kata and Se Oh), constantly looking back at the wall clock hanging above the door. Dennis is extremely late for the appointment, and Gina, at this point, feels that he's not even going to show up at all. She may be a bit annoyed, but her face betrays a sigh of relief, too.
As she gathers her belongings ready to bolt, in walks the mystery man everyone's been discussing. Dennis, looking quite menacing in dark sunglasses, a hat pulled down low over his brows, and a hoody draped over it, swaggers in without even a hint of expression or a sound.
And thus begins one of the most riveting, anxiety-inducing student-teacher conferences you'll probably ever sit through while at the edge of a theater seat.
At first, Gina—with a calm, soothing voice you'd expect from a concerned therapist or social worker—tries to ask Dennis question after question, only to be met with utter silence and blank, almost eerily frightening defiance—a tactic Gina recognizes as a kind of "power" implied by one's silence (her dad, an intimidating man himself and whom she no longer speaks with, is apparently a practitioner of this).
Gina is, of course, trying her damndest to break through to Dennis... understand him... connect with him... and, yes, get to the bottom of the young Junior-year student who has, surprisingly, chosen to be an English major, yet crafts such horrific, disturbing writings—which aren't even really that great either.
Understandably, she feels empathy for Dennis... and yet is scared by Dennis. Heck, I think we all would be scared as well—because we, too, in our "new" normal have learned to be scared of such seemingly "disturbed" individuals. But, in an ideal world where fear doesn't rule us, Gina is doing what most of us wish we were brave enough to do... dive deeper and explore. Where the heck is Dennis pulling these twisted writings from? Is it a sign of bad things to come or just a way to vent his personal frustrations?
Once in a while, Gina—revealing some of her own personal details—gets through to him, and, in return, Dennis throws her a bone occasionally... a nugget of insight here, half-hearted compliance with a request there, or even a few very personal revelations from his past... only to be repeatedly pushed away again when it gets way too real. It's clear to Gina and the audience that Dennis is in deep pain and is channelling that pain by twisting it into his harsh writings and his outward, quietly intimidating behavior.
"Dennis, you want to be a writer," Gina tells him, trying to tap into his vanity, pointing out a "supposed" raw talent, but adds that he perhaps needed to "write something that connects instead of repels."
But, alas, we soon learn that connecting is the last thing on Dennis' agenda as a writer. Hearing Dennis talk of his own painful, self-hatred—and how that self-hatred has exponentially affected how he sees the world and how he feels the world sees him—truly speaks volumes about how one's sadness can explode beyond having a bad day. Dennis tearfully admits that he's felt "dead" for quite some time, and that he's just a walking shell of his former self walking around campus.
And in the play's most memorably jolting device that repeats several times during the course of the pair's conversation, Gina—and the audience—are constantly confronted with the jarring reality of what could happen within the framework of such a confrontational, emotionally-heavy one-on-one. One sudden scene "ender" after another reminds us exactly why we are all so fearful of our world nowadays. And rather than reveal the playwright and director's effectively smacking dramatic device, all I'll say is that each one, when it arrives, is viciously loud and realistically instantaneous enough to shake you to the core.
Thought-provoking and fiercely acted, particularly from Oh and her young scene partner Lee, OFFICE HOUR—which unfolds in real-time and therefore elicits real-time reactions—is truly one of the sharpest contemporary plays I have seen this season, touching on a subject that is still so viscerally present in all our lives. To see this earnest drama play out from the clashing (but ultimately connected) perspectives of two Asian-American characters gives the play an added powerful racial context as well, even though the feeling of dread and fear transcends cultural or even background parameters.
Visually, the play effectively presents a seemingly normal world invaded by violence. Kata and Oh's set is real-world enough, but Elizabeth Harper's lighting designs paired with Peter Bayne's music and sound designs offer appropriate shocks upon their surprise arrivals. Alex Jaeger's costume designs for the cast continue the realism, down to the inherent anxiety most people now unfortunately associate subconsciously with seeing dark sunglasses paired with a hoody and an angry facial expression.
While the extremity of Dennis' behavior feels intensified here, many (like myself) can connect deeply with the pain and hurt felt by the character. When he yells, "I was born to be hated!" it harkens back to something a teenage version of myself would have felt... that feeling that some people feel they are doomed to live out the existence of someone that's just not liked by others, or are just too difficult to like. That pain and angst, we learn, is expressed vividly in the only way Dennis knows how, however harsh and unpolished it is. In his sharing of this, it creates a believable bubble of empathy for Dennis—the very kind that the other rush-to-judge characters in the play are unwilling to provide him...well, that is, except Gina. Gina, I'd like to think, represents most of us who are willing to delve deeper into someone before making a snap judgment on who/what this person is.
A playwright fine-tuned to humanity, Cho certainly knows how to tap into this hovering fear that at any given moment, we may find ourselves trapped in this precarious situation. OFFICE HOUR, ultimately, doesn't provide easy answers, not that it doesn't try. But that, in a way, is the take-away from the play: that things just happen... tragic, horrible things, sometimes... that can't just be easily explained away. But learning more about each other—diving in bravely, making connections, and having the willingness to empathize—are certainly viable arguments to curbing or spotting tragedies before they happen.
Fear may now be a more frequent fact of life, but it can't rule all of life either.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Debora Robinson and Ben Horak for South Coast Repertory.
Julia Cho's OFFICE HOUR continues its world premiere performances at South Coast Repertory through April 30, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.