Do you think you would know if someone is about to commit a mass atrocity? What exactly is the type of person who would commit such an act? How far would you go to connect to another human being you believe to be in trouble? These are questions presented in Office Hour, an intense and provocative drama by playwright Julia Cho. Directed by Neel Keller and playing at the Public Theater, Office Hour is a meditation on gun violence and the perceived power of human connection.
At the start of the play, English adjunct professor Gina (Sue Jean Kim) is warned by her colleagues David (Greg Keller) and Genevieve (Adeola Role) about a particular student. Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) has been writing some really disturbing things in their classes. Violent, rape-filled imagery, full of sexually deviant acts like incest and necrophilia. The teachers are worried because, as evidenced by his writing, he appears to be a troubled person. He won’t talk in class, barely says a word in one-on-one meetings, and is always wearing a hoodie and sunglasses. He “fits the profile” of a mass shooter and they’re concerned.
Now that Dennis is in her class, they believe Gina, who shares Dennis’s Korean-American background, has more of a chance of getting through to him. So Gina arranges a meeting with Dennis and, during the course of the office hour, she attempts to break through the stony exterior to get at what he is about and what he’s capable of.
Much of Office Hour is a two-hander filled with a tension that crackles in the air. It’s a slow burn but one that doesn’t let up. The connection that Gina tries to forge with Dennis and the way she works on him is almost as though her, or his, life depends on it. The actors have almost no dialogue but together their performances are incendiary, filled with pain and yearning for human connection. It’s not clear if Dennis is capable of killing anyone and the play has a very clever device for keeping those questions hanging in the air.
What the play does air out is the ubiquity of gun violence in our culture. It’s no secret that mass shootings have become commonplace. Cho shines a light on both our fears about it as well as our subsequent desensitivity to it. At one point in Office Hour, a character talks about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash vortex in the Pacific Ocean that is so large and so far from any one country, that no one will take responsibility for cleaning it up. It plays into the “out of sight, out of mind” tenet that often accompanies mass shootings. People may be shocked and appalled by an instance of gun violence but it hardly disrupts their lives unless it’s happening directly to them. It’s this distance from it that is so harmful, that makes us complacent, that allows it to keep happening.
To counter that randomness and chaos, Office Hour makes an interesting case for appealing to a person’s humanity and empathizing. It can be a powerful tool that may make a difference. But Cho also shows us that it’s not always easy and straightforward as that. After all, humans are complex creatures.