Teachers who have already had Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) in class agree on one thing: the kid scares them. Like some disgruntled teenager planning to shoot up his school, Dennis dresses all in black, hides his face under a hooded sweatshirt and never says a word in class. Worse, the short stories and screenplays he turns in for class discussion are “super-detailed revenge scenarios with brutal sex scenes” that read like torture porn. At one point, he even pulls out a gun.
Under these harrowing circumstances, Sue Jean Kim gives a remarkably controlled performance as Gina, an idealistic English teacher in Julia Cho’s “Office Hour,” now playing at the Public Theater. Gina is determined to disregard Dennis’s “shooter” profile — “Painfully socially awkward. Totally isolated. Delusional. Obsessed with violence” — and treat him like any other student.
Cho (“The Language Archive”) is a confident writer, Gina is a gutsy character and Kim is a self-possessed performer, so the sensible, sympathetic teacher commands the stage for the first half of the play. “There’s a fine line between twisted and good and twisted and bad,” she tells her silently seething student, “and maybe you’ll cross it someday.”
But when Dennis finally speaks, the focus shifts, the scene darkens, and danger looms. “Don’t you get it?” he snarls at his teacher. “I’m dead.”
Surprisingly, Gina doesn’t run out the door screaming at this point, which seems like the sensible thing to do. But both the playwright and her character are made of sterner stuff, so brave Gina keeps on talking, even when Dennis lunges at her with misguided love, or lust, or something. Since some of his abrupt moves are genuinely threatening, Cho’s smart, civilized dialogue occasionally seems tone deaf. Unless director Neel Keller is deliberately playing against the written text and reaching for the subtext.
In any event, Gina keeps her wits, which allows Kim to deliver the writer’s sober thoughts on dealing with “the broken ones,” the students that teachers feel honor-bound to fix. “Seeing someone like you wasting his time, wasting my time, when time is all we have … it upsets me,” she says, speaking to Dennis like an adult. “You have an opportunity here, Dennis. And I’m not just talking about writing. I’m talking about your life.”
Being spoken to like an adult, instead of a sulky child, does wonders for Dennis, who gradually responds to his teacher’s impassioned beliefs about writing – and about life. At Gina’s prompting, he even picks up a pen and begins to write. But what he writes, we’ll never know, since Cho writes alternative endings for crucial scenes. That fluid dramaturgical device, repeated in the shifting moods of Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design, suits an expressionist narrative with a beginning and a middle, but no firm ending – as if to say that Dennis’s life, like his writing, is a work in progress.
Off Broadway Review: ‘Office Hour’
Public Theater / Martinson; 199 seats; $85 top. Opened Nov. 8, 2017. Reviewed Nov. 3. Running time: ONE HOUR, 25 MIN.
A Public Theater presentation of a play in one act by Julia Cho, commissioned and originally produced by South Coast Repertory Theater.
Directed by Neel Keller. Set, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Kaye Voyce; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; original music & sound, Bray Poor; fight direction, Sordelet Ink; production stage manager, Jennifer Rae Moore.
Greg Keller, Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee, Adeola Role.