Inactive shooter on campus

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday March 7, 2018
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Should the day come when "Office Hour" can't claim to be ripped from today's headlines, it will be a cause for celebration. Julia Cho's oddly toned play has a timeliness that is beginning to feel timeless, and while it was chosen for Berkeley Rep's season before the recent high school massacre in Florida, the added relevance curiously enough does not produce much in the way of added impact.

This is a case where timeliness does not translate into meaningfulness as the play stutters its way through a scenario in which a sullen college student who writes disturbing stories has pretty much convinced the faculty and his fellow students that a latent shooter is in their midst. "I'm going to ass rape you until you bleed, Dad," is a typical line in one of his short stories for a creative writing class. While other faculty members (Jeremy Kahn and Kerry Warren) are lobbying for his expulsion, an earnest young writing instructor makes it her mission to connect with her frightening charge.

For most of the play's 80 minutes, Gina and Dennis are alone in a sterile conference room at an unnamed university. Gina tries various tactics to provoke the defiantly silent Dennis into just audibly communicating. And she finally pushes a right button by invoking their shared Asian parentage. She assumes the role of an archetypal hectoring Korean mother with barbed comebacks to Dennis' defenses of all of his life choices. Although it plays something like a Margaret Cho comedy routine, the scene feels more authentic than many other moments, and it shows Jackie Chung at her best in a mostly thin performance as Gina.

The scene also gives us the first chance to see Daniel Chung's Dennis outside his hunched, hoodied shell as he becomes for a moment a defenseless boy under his mother's needling. He's good in this scene, and increasingly so as we get further into the character's self-loathing head. "I have to be dead," he says. "The thought that this is life is unbearable." Alternately, he does feel his life has a purpose, albeit a melancholy one. "I was born to be hated," he says. "Society needs me. The loser exists for a reason."

But Cho's play begins to go off the rails as she tries to find ways to infuse a long conversation with shock value without ever committing to it. One scene devolves into Dennis pulling out a handgun and shooting Gina, but after a quick blackout, the characters return to as they were. Audience gasps taper off as we realize that the rug will always be pulled out from beneath any violent melodrama, and if we are to see these scenes as iterations of possible scenarios, that falls apart as it grows into Keystone Kop absurdity.

Playwright Cho and director Lisa Peterson scored mightily with the sweet and savory "Aubergine" several years ago at Berkeley Rep, but the results are considerably less rewarding with "Office Hour" as the play culminates in a fluttering finale of false revelation.

"Office Hour" will run at Berkeley Rep through March 25. Tickets are $45-$97. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to