We’ve got to face the fact: All human beings, when angry enough, are capable of having violent impulses. It’s hardwired into our natures. That’s true for you, for me, and even for Julia Cho, whose previous plays have mostly struck me as rather tenderhearted. But Cho, being female and Asian American, has some justification these days for thoughts of violence, this being a time when guns run rampant and newly emboldened angry white males are busy rejecting any thought of equality for women or people of non-European extraction. That could give an Asian American woman who writes plays ample reason for filling her latest work with acts of violence, and in Cho’s newest opus, Office Hour (at the Public Theater), the threat of gun violence is never far away. A gun is flourished and goes off several times; some of the blackouts between scenes feature, in lieu of incidental music, collages of prerecorded gunshots.
But the gun violence in Office Hour, though it’s direct and confrontational, and of a kind frighteningly familiar these days, does not fall easily into any prior category of violence in plays. Cho has other matters in mind; her multiple gunshots, it turns out, are extreme metaphors for the multiple possibilities of a situation that might lead to violence but much more probably might not. This doesn’t make the impending violence, when it looms up, any less unnerving for her audience. It’s intensified by Cho’s four characters all being those sensitive souls, writers — three creative writing teachers on a large college campus and a student who has successively been a problem in each of their classes.
At a time when every college — like most other places where groups gather — is on tenterhooks about possible mass shootings, Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) is enough to scare any classroom, especially one full of nervous wannabe writers. Skulking at the back of the room, a baseball cap under a black hoodie shadowing his face, his eyes further hidden behind dark glasses, never sitting down and speaking only rarely, he might as well be wearing a neon sign that says “sociopath.” He turns in all his assignments on time, but even that doesn’t help: His writing, thick with obscenity, rape, and hideous extreme violence, is every bit as scary as he is. African American Genevieve (Adeola Role), who teaches poetry, has had to “quarantine” his assignments because they got his fellow students too upset. David (Greg Keller), the white guy who teaches playwriting and screenwriting, has flunked him because, apart from the poor quality of Dennis’s writing, the class has openly revolted rather than read his scenes of incessant violence and torture out loud. Now Gina (Sue Jean Kim) — who, like Dennis, is Asian American — must deal with him in her fiction and essay-writing class. While her colleagues warn her of the potential danger, they simultaneously pressure her to “do something” about the problem of Dennis, cavalierly assuming that, because of her Asian heritage, “you must have stuff in common.”
Bravely willing to try, Gina schedules an office-hour appointment with Dennis. What follows is not straightforward dramatic development but a series of variations on a theme. Each version of the encounter moves a little closer to understanding through mutual self-revelation, but also closer to a violent climax, different each time. Ingeniously, each version of the scene scoops up some of the new material from its predecessor, giving a sense of forward movement to what’s essentially repetition. We learn something of Dennis’s grievances, and a little — too little, in my view — of his past; we also learn the extent to which Gina can empathize with them. In two eerie but nonviolent scenes at the very end, Cho leaves the whole dramatic situation behind, linking Dennis’s problems to larger world problems and to the metaphysics of storytelling.
This odd final progression highlights both a key fact about Office Hour and its central flaw. For all its focus on gunfire, it doesn’t really deal with school shootings and what makes someone a shooter. It’s more concerned with emotional comprehension and issues of creative expression — matters that dominate earlier Cho plays like the bittersweet idyll Durango (2006) and the tenderly sardonic comedy The Language Archive (2007). Though Cho has carefully constructed Dennis to convey the outward image of a mass killer, we see little of the mental disturbance that runs deep inside all the known cases. Cho was apparently drawn to the subject because the perpetrator of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre was an Asian American student — also, ironically, named Cho — who had written some notably violent plays and short stories. But Seung-Hui Cho had a long history of treatment for severe anxiety disorder; at the time of the incident, he had just been ruled mentally ill and ordered in a court hearing to seek treatment, after he was accused of stalking two female students. The violence in his writing was, at best, a secondary matter; the real issue was why the university had not been aware of the long medical history that preceded the act — and also why someone in his condition had been allowed to purchase guns in the first place. (A loophole in Virginia law that was subsequently closed is the answer to that second question.)
The issue of ethnic prejudice, which probably played a secondary but certainly real role in Seung-Hui Cho’s case, looms very large in Office Hour. Cho’s hero, far from being mentally disturbed, turns out to be articulate and well able to discuss his situation — not at all the mumbling, taciturn figure the teachers describe in the opening scene. One of his two previous teachers is revealed as a bully and a bigot, standing in, a little too conveniently, for all the prior bullies and bigots, who leave their marks on a victimized person’s history. Apart from some comments about an overachieving sister, we hear next to nothing of Dennis’s home life; Gina’s is given in more detail. Even the gun at the core of the work’s tension is handled more casually than mass shooters are known to treat their weaponry. The net effect is a play in which two sets of concerns keep displacing each other. It says something for Neel Keller’s production that it’s able to hew to a straight line artistically in the face of all the script’s divagations, and even greater praise goes to Sue Jean Kim, for never deviating from her character’s reality for an instant, even though the realistic ground is constantly shifting beneath her. Making sense of violence isn’t easy; striving to make sense in a play that struggles to comprehend such violence must surely be a fearsome task.