On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 at Virginia Tech, the university in Blacksburg where he was a senior majoring in English (a change from his original major in business information technology). At the time, the Virginia Tech massacre was the deadliest shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history — a fact that seems nauseatingly laughable now. Also at the time, I was a college junior directing a production of Peter Barnes’s Red Noses, a play set during the Black Plague. My administration’s response to the horrifying news from my home state was to ban the use of onstage weapons. Our medieval swords and daggers were taken away and locked up. We didn’t have the word for it yet, but the justification was that audiences would find weapons of any kind “triggering.” My classmates and I objected to what seemed like a shortsighted, reactionary conflation of sensitivity with creative censorship — not knowing that we were entering a new world, a world where acts like Cho’s would become, within a decade, literally a daily occurrence. Our own American Black Plague.
Three days before I saw Julia Cho’s Office Hour at the Public, eight people were killed in the West Side Highway bike path by a driver who then exited his car “waving guns and screaming.” (The Twitter news cycle wouldn’t reveal till later that those weapons were a pellet gun and a paintball gun, but the deaths were real.) Two days after I saw it, 26 people were shot and killed in a church outside San Antonio. A month before that, a sniper killed 58 people and injured more than 500 in Las Vegas. We all know these numbers. They are our reality now. Office Hour is an attempt to grapple with that reality. And because we’re an unrelentingly earnest nation, we — at least those of us who take an interest in art at all — are primed to think that any creative attempt to look at Big, Serious, Painful Subjects is necessarily a good thing. But I’m not so sure. Office Hour has moments that feel vital, honest, and valuable. It’s also built around, and builds to, a scenario that I find deeply questionable, perhaps even irresponsible.
The play is what it says on the label. Almost all of its 90 minutes unfold during a meeting between Gina (Sue Jean Kim) — an adjunct English professor at an unidentified university — and Dennis (Ki Hong Lee), her student, a silent loner in a black hoodie and sunglasses whose creative-writing assignments are aggressively sexual, scatological, and violent. Gina has been warned about Dennis. The play has a prologue of sorts in which two of Dennis’s former English teachers, David and Genevieve (Greg Keller and Adeola Role), meet Gina over coffee and describe the 18-year-old student as “a classic shooter.” They’re scared and desperate. David flunked him; Genevieve spent her semester as his teacher nervously avoiding him. They both see the school as unwilling to get involved. They want Gina to “get through to him” because, as Genevieve ventures hesitantly, “You guys must have stuff in common …”
Gina stiffens at this. She and Dennis are both Asian — Korean-American, to be exact. So are the actors, Kim and Lee. So is Julia Cho. So was Seung-Hui Cho. At its most effective moments, Office Hour is interested not only in the question of gun violence, but in the painful, isolating struggle faced by the children of immigrant parents in this country. Gina has every right to resent the implication, but the truth is that she and Dennis do have things in common. They both know the brutal combination of familial expectation, social ostracism, and discouragement of creativity that — given enough time in the pressure cooker — can produce an artist or a mass murderer. In one of the play’s best scenes, Gina and Dennis hold pencils to their ears and role-play a phone conversation, with Gina in the role of well-meaning, unwittingly hurtful parent and Dennis in the (not really a) role of confused, suffering child. “Dad and me, we supposed to support you the rest of our lives?” Gina needles, her English acquiring an accent, “Where are your [writing] awards? If you’re so good, why haven’t your teacher noticed? Why hasn’t anyone noticed?… ‘Doing your passion’ sounds good but if everyone did that, where would we be, huh? Your father didn’t do that. I didn’t do that. We didn’t have the luxury of doing that.”
She’s Dennis’s mother and she’s her own. Perhaps she’s Julia Cho’s too? Or perhaps not. Whatever the facts, Cho here seems to be following the advice that she puts into Gina’s mouth earlier in the play: “I don’t know much … but I do know that the simpler, the truer, the more close to actual size the writing is, the better.” The telephone role-play feels fresh and honest and — unlike much of Office Hour — actually allows for humor. According to the rules of the play’s universe, however, it may not have really happened. Like Caryl Churchill’s Heart’s Desire, Office Hour plays itself out as a sequence of potential scenarios: variations of what could happen between Gina and Dennis over the course of their meeting. (Though the construct isn’t a completely tidy one: The blackouts between scenes don’t take us fully back to the beginning of the encounter, so it’s hard to keep track of which events are “real.” Not to mention the fact that the clock on the set’s wall moves incongruously forward in real time over the course of the play.) Some scenarios lead to tears, confessions, and the beginnings of meaningful connection. Others — many others — lead to someone getting shot.
Which brings us to the big, unavoidable spoiler — because it’s impossible to talk about Office Hour without talking about the peak of its action. Outside the Public’s Martinson Theater, you’ll see a pretty standard warning sign: “This performance contains loud recorded gun shots, live blanks, violence, and strobe effects.” It’s not enough. The climax of Office Hour is an immersive mass shooting. The theater goes dark, and the sound of gunfire comes from everywhere — the stage, the back of the auditorium, beside you, underneath you. Sound designer Bray Poor clearly has speakers all around the room, and for what feels like an eternity (though perhaps it’s half a minute), the audience is captive in the most awful sense. It’s a sickening experience — I spent most of it gripping my armrest and thinking to myself, “This is where these things happen. In theaters. In churches. In places of congregation.” — and it’s clearly meant to be sickening. I realize that in writing these words, I might be fulfilling director Neel Keller’s dearest wish for the production. “Yes!” an artist who has set out to create such an effect might reasonably think. “It worked!”
But what worked? For me, the climax of Office Hour overwhelms the rest of the play to a destructive degree. It feels like a cruel trick on an audience who came willing to listen and learn. I’m not trying to clutch my pearls here: I have vivid memories of storming into the office of my college dean, railing at what I regarded as censorship in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting. Art can, and sometimes should, trouble and provoke. But the question should be, to what end? In the case of Office Hour, my guess is that the play and its creators want us to look at something — really look at it. There’s a not particularly subtle monologue by Dennis in which he describes the Pacific Garbage Patch: “We know it is there but we don’t see it. And because we can’t see it, we don’t think about it. So it just sits there. Getting bigger day by day by day.”
Are we truly not already looking? It seems disingenuous to imply that audiences don’t confront the existence of our country’s deadly garbage patch every single day as we open our papers and glance at our phones. In varying degrees, we all walk through this current world carrying with us a leaden ball of fear. And though it contains moments of humanity and insight, Office Hour ultimately makes a defining decision that, for me, does little more than increase that fear’s dismal, daily weight.
Office Hour is at the Public Theater.