You are unlikely to find more riveting theater than playwright Julia Cho’s “Office Hour,” a searing, right-on-target drama dealing with the fear of random violence. I say this even though I have some quarrel with the way the playwright and director Neel Keller toy with the audience via a series of shocks. But, abetted by a razor-sharp cast, the play is hot stuff.
The set-up is at a university where at the outset three professors are sharing anxieties about a problem student, Dennis, who is not only sullen and uncommunicative, but writes assignments filled with hostile, violent language and bloody imagery that instill fear, particularly in exasperated David (Greg Keller), that Dennis is a dangerous student who could commit violence and needs to be kicked out.
Genevieve, another professor (Adeola Role), also is fearful and reports zero progress in trying to communicate with Dennis. But there remains a reluctant feeling that perhaps he deserves one more chance. The third in the group, Gina (Sue Jean Kim), is asked to make an attempt to break through and see if the young man can be helped. Thanks a lot. She reluctantly agrees to try.
The personal fireworks begin when Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) is ordered to Gina’s office and shows up late. Wearing a hood and his usual dark glasses, he is silent and uncooperative at first, but through Gina’s prodding, he begins to reveal how full of self-loathing he is, in addition to hating everyone else. He feels that he is already dead a human being. Still, might he have writing talent if he could be led to move away from his violent diatribes?
What is unsettling is that in her effort to act very compassionately toward Dennis, Gina breaks just about every rule about dealing with students. She talks about problems in her own life. She keeps the door closed. And at an emotional moment she tries to comfort Dennis by hugging him to show he is worthy of compassion. He, of course, wants to go a step further.
This teacher-to-student consultation is periodically interrupted by stage action to show what Gina may be thinking. There are abrupt outbursts that dramatize such thoughts, with the feeling that the author is not playing fair and square with the audience.
The stakes, both in imagination and in reality, escalate as the play charges forward without intermission, and the whole problem of chilling violence that we see in the daily headlines is conceptually addressed.
Kim performs superbly in-depth and Lee is everything he should be as Dennis. He is at first inscrutable with his sullenness and outright bursts of defiance, but also revealing himself to be a poignantly scarred individual with glimmers of potential. He is frighteningly memorable in the characterization.
The result is drama attuned to today, whether the lurking potential violence is on a university campus, in a church, or elsewhere in the country . The playwright, director and cast confront this head-on with such intensity that one is glued to the stage. I have qualms with some of the deceptions foisted on the audience, but as theater it sure works. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed November 9, 2017.