Published on April 21st, 2016 | by Greggory Moore0
OFFICE HOUR @ South Coast Repertory
If it walks like a future school shooter and talks like a future school shooter, should we treat it like a future school shooter? This is the starting point for Office Hour, essentially a one-act play portraying a professor’s potentially pivotal office hour with a troubled student.
So you don’t spend the first 10 minutes of Office Hour trying to puzzle it out, yes, that is the Sandra Oh of Grey’s Anatomy fame (how sick she much be of that tag. Sorry, Sandra) playing Gina, a creative-writing adjunct with a heart of gold. This semester it’s Gina who has David (Corey Brill) in class. David’s costume is baseball cap, hoodie, and sunglasses. He never speaks, except to read his ultraviolent, sexually twisted, execrably bad fiction (sample line: “I’m gonna rape you in the ass ’til you bleed, Dad”) to increasingly nervous classmates, some of whom drop rather than persevere through a semester with such a discomforting presence. “Talk about draining your fucking chi,” says one of Gina’s fellow professors.
The unexpected humor found in lines like that is a nice aspect of Julia Cho’s script. Office Hour asks serious questions (how do people become isolated? What does it do to them? How do we break through to someone who’s been shaped in such a way?), but Cho manages to imbue the proceedings with conversational humor that most always works.
The results are more mixed when it comes to the meat of the matter. No, Cho never descends to the level of public-service announcement or an ABC Afterschool Special, but now and again she comes close. At times David seems too much like a type. This may be partly by design. In the scene that sets up the fly-on-the-office-wall section that’s the bulk of the play, one of Gina’s cohort says something along the lines of: There have always been broken people in the world, but now they get ideas, such as killing a bunch of people before they kill themselves. That’s all well and good, but the characters who populate Office Hour are most interesting in their idiosyncrasy. Gina works hard to break through David’s barriers because something in their making resonates with her own upbringing. It’s David’s and Gina’s starting points, and their individual efforts to erect a bridge between here and there, where Office Hour is most compelling.
By its very nature Office Hour could easily be a big bore in the wrong hands, but Cho is lucky enough to get a good director and cast. Brill and Oh do good work in letting us see their struggles. Portraying a full character arc in the course of a single conversation is not the easiest acting task, yet they get the job done. For his part, director Neel Keller physically makes the most of a play that is static by design.
Helping relieve the stasis is what I’ll call (in a reference that will be intelligible only to people who see Michael Haneke films) the Funny Games device. But Cho and/or Keller probably go to the well once too often, taking what proves effective throughout most of our flight and rendering it slightly tired and incoherent as we come in for a landing.
The unsung heroes of Office Hour are scenic designers by Takeshi Kata and Se Oh and their crew. Gina’s office is a miracle of verisimilitude, from the years of water damage slowly marching from the ceiling down the walls to the fire extinguisher and event poster visible in the hallway just beyond Gina’s door. And when this set first comes into view, creeping forward under electric blue lighting (lighting design by Elizabeth Harper), it’s jaw-dropping. I wanted to stand up and ask them to do that four more times, but that would have been bad form, right?
Office Hour may not always speak with perfect eloquence, but it’s something worth hearing, especially as amplified by South Coast Repertory.
OFFICE HOUR SOUTH COAST REPERTORY • JULIANNE ARGYROS STAGE: 655 TOWN CENTER DR • COSTA MESA 92626 • 714.708.5555 SCR.ORG • TUES-SUN 7:45PM + SAT-SUN 2PM • $20-$69 • THROUGH MAY 1
(Photo credit: Debora Robinson/SCR)