Sandra Oh and Raymond Lee give electrifying performances as a college adjunct professor and the student she suspects just might be capable of mass murder in Julia Cho’s ripped-from-today’s-headlines Office Hour, now riveting audiences in its World Premiere engagement at South Coast Repertory.
It’s hardly surprising that Dennis (Lee) has caught the attention of his creative writer instructor Gina (Oh) given his off-putting all-black attire (hoodie over baseball cap, eyes hidden behind sunglasses) and equally foreboding manner (hunched-over posture, downcast eyes, and monosyllabic answers at best).
Still, it’s only after coffee with coworkers David (Corey Brill) and Genevieve (Sola Bamis), each of whom has survived a semester of Dennis’s misogynistic hyper-violent fiction (disturbing enough to have prompted classmates’ complaints but not considered serious enough for university—let alone police—intervention) that Gina realizes she could well be teaching a psycho.
Unfortunately for the untenured adjunct, Dennis’s decidedly sinister presence has already led quite a few students to drop her class, and it’s the very real possibility of its cancellation that provokes Gina’s attempt to penetrate the young loner’s seemingly bulletproof emotional armor.
Further revelation of what transpires during the office hour that gives Cho’s play its title (and which unfolds in real time as the wall clock ticks down the minutes) would be to detract from Office Hour’s edge-of-your-seat unpredictability.
Suffice it to say that if anyone can get through to Dennis, it just might be Gina, whose shared ethnicity and cultural/familial background allows her to feel for him what her colleagues have been incapable of—empathy.
Under Neel Keller’s galvanic direction, Office Hour will have you feeling as if you are in Gina’s office with her, sharing her fear, her frustration, and her compassion even as her writer’s imagination takes flight in a series of nerve-shattering what-ifs.
By focusing on a single hour in its two protagonists’ lives, Cho’s character study manages to connect with its audience in a way a docudrama might not, prompting us to reflect on what might make an Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold or Seung-Hui Cho tick, tick, tick … and whether there is anything any of us could do to prevent another Columbine or Virginia Tech massacre from happening.
It’s hard to imagine a finer cast for Office Hour than the one now igniting the Julianne Argyros Stage, beginning with its luminous star, whose ten seasons on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy and countless indie film roles make her one of South Coast Rep’s highest-profile leads in years.
Fierce yet compassionate, confident yet vulnerable, the Golden Globe/SAG award-winning Oh proves herself a consummate stage actress in a role that keeps her onstage for all but a few moments, and she is matched every step of the way by her equally brilliant costar.
Astounding only begins to describe Lee’s emotional and physical transformation from the cocky, charismatic romantic hero he played in last year’s Vietgone to the pathologically introverted, frighteningly volatile loner he brings to indelible life in Office Hour.
Though Office Hour might find its most ideal staging in the claustrophobic intimacy of a 99-seat theater, scenic designers Takeshi Kata and Se Oh have done a fine job of keeping Gina’s shared office on the small side, and the larger Argyros stage works particularly well for the play’s final scene.
Elizabeth Harper lights exquisitely and Alex Jaeger’s costumes are just right for all four characters. Best of all, Peter Bayne’s explosive sound design and original music work again and again to up the suspenseful ante.
Sue Karutz is stage manager. Jackie S. Hill is production manager. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA. Kathleen Barrett is production assistant. Ken Merckx is fight consultant.
I’m a big fan of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive, Durango, and The Winchester House. Office Hour proves every bit as impressive a showcase for one of our finest young playwrights and for the superb cast who bring her provocative, insightful words to devastating life.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
April 21, 2016
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR, Ben Horak, SCR