Review: "Office Hour" at Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy 

  • OnStage Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

Long Wharf’s latest offering, Office Hour, is playwright Julia Cho’s third work to be produced at Long Wharf with a tough and timely subject: the eminent threat of a school mass shooting.  The 75-minute one act focuses on what happens (maybe) when a professor tries to reach out to a troubled student who may become the next Seung-Hui Cho.

Adjunct faculty members Genevieve (Kerry Warren) and David (Jeremy Kahn) are concerned about the well-being of one their students, Dennis (Daniel Chung). He dresses in all black, resembling a cross between the Unibomber and the Zodiac Killer. He writes violent and sexually-deviant stories and screenplays that are terrifying to the other students, and to them. Could he be a potential threat to others? They shared their concerns with Gina (Jackie Chung), and wonder if maybe she could intervene. Gina asks Dennis to come see her during her office hours in hopes that she can reach out to him. That’s where the crux of the story starts… and starts again… and then picks up in the middle and starts again… and veers off in another direction... and so on. It’s a dizzy ride, one that I found unsteadying, and not just because of its fits and starts. The play covers a lot of tough topics – race, religion, family dynamics, fear, violence, identity, humanity – all with a potential school shooting teetering in the balance.  After reading Ms. Cho’s interview in the playbill, I can understand why the structure is the way it is: in taking on a subject as jarring as school shootings, a linear play format didn’t feel appropriate to Cho. A linear play would show the two getting together, talking, and the scene ending. What are the possibilities? She wanted to show them. While I thought the script had some consistency problems, there are amazing feats of performance and choreography that cannot be overlooked.

Ms. Chung is fantastic as concerned professor, Gina. It’s her outstanding performance that made the show worthwhile for me. She switches between emotions and tactics in approaching Dennis like an empathetic acrobat.  Every new start means a different approach, and the audience is with her every step of the way. Mr. Chung also does a fine job as the dark and brooding Dennis, showing hints of vulnerability when necessary; his reading of the creative writing piece toward the end of the play is touching, demonstrating his humanity.

My choreography comment refers to one section of the piece where possible shooting scenarios flash across the stage. It requires precision by the technical staff as well as the actors, and it is impressive. Lights up: one scenario, lights down. Lights up: next scenario, lights down. All the action happens while the clock on the wall glows, as its hands spin in various directions. Somehow, the actors are able to get to their new positions in time for the next reveal; sometimes they are covered in blood, sometimes not. It has its intended effect of shock and awe.

So, do I recommend this show? Maybe, if nonlinear scripts don’t bother you. But if Sandy Hook still gives you the jitters, you might sit this one out.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson