Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Office Hour’ needs more time than that

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The instructor Gina (Jackie Chung) tries to crack the hardened exterior of her student’s exterior in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of Julia Cho’s “Office Hour” through March 25th. (Kevin Berne photo)

There is an odd moment in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Office Hour” that takes place between the disturbed Dennis, the professor Gina and a few pens.

The young man takes the bait, humoring the professor by engaging in a conversation. The conversation as a stand-alone piece has some nice, humorous moments, a light repartee when the professor, acting as Dennis’ mother, questions his choice to be a writer.

It is Dennis’ course of study that has everyone on edge. Other professors want this kid gone. They speak about his hygiene, his vicious awkwardness, and ultimately, his writing that is beyond scary. But Gina takes a different approach – maybe it’s this outlet of writing that is saving everyone from a possible violent episode from the aloof young student.

As the conversation continues, pens double as phones, and a huge insecurity is revealed.

While the conversation is intriguing, it is also one of the problems with this play. The way the reveal happens comes from such a place that it is so quick, so ill-conceived that it takes away from the ability to process anything that resembles a coherent thought. As if she is going to crack this mystery through osmosis, as if he is just going to grab this magic pen, put it to his ear, and we learn about what makes him the ticking time bomb he is.

It doesn’t quite work like that.

The play has plenty going for it. Start with sharp directing by Lisa Peterson, who brings forth a pace that is extremely steady and effective. You also have some solid fight choreography by Thomas Schall. There are also two acting performances that are committed, especially by the enigmatic Dennis, played with an inner-torturous flair by Daniel Chung. Jackie Chung as Gina does a solid job of driving the piece, her obstacles clear as she proceeds through this magnanimous journey.

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The enigmatic Dennis (Daniel Chung) is summoned to his professor’s office hour. (Kevin Berne photo)

“Office Hour” features some incredibly powerful moments on a scintillating set designed by Matt Saunders, thought-provoking nuggets that, quite frankly, were difficult to watch. As someone who has had plenty of conversations with students who had no desire to engage for a million reasons, I can certainly empathize with what the poor professor was trying to do. So many layers must be peeled before anything is revealed in the center.

Some revelations were effective, others were of the pure fantasy variety. What phenomenal playwright Julia Cho seems to be doing is presenting a bunch of different possibilities and avenues to get to the heart of what makes a disengaged lone wolf act with vengeance over a world that doesn’t want him.

The different faces of Dennis pieced together brings the audience to a complicated portrait. With the prompting of Gina, there are moments when he is engaging in a thoughtful writing exercise that flows beautifully. Other of his insecurities seem to be ripped straight from the pages of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” connecting Dennis to another vicious anti-hero, Gloucester:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days/I am determinèd to prove a villain/And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Dennis, with a face that seems to showcase a skin condition, along with dark sunglasses and a black hat that shields his face and matted hair with aplomb, makes no qualms about his desire to destroy anything in his path, to provide hurt in a world that has hurt him.

I can’t think of a play that I saw at a time in history where it felt timelier. We are living in a moment where the youth of Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and others before them and since, have lived through unconscionable horrors. And these brave young students have flat-out rejected the group who always seems to be saying, “It’s not the time to talk about or politicize this tragedy.”

Yet the play’s timeliness also seems to hurt it’s bottom line a bit. The play, with some rapid denouement that goes from scene to scene, doesn’t completely feel connected. And in moments where more exploration was needed to delve a bit deeper into Dennis’ journey through the eighty uninterrupted minutes, the moment ended.

If the only thing we needed was educators armed with pens, things would be a whole lot easier.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Office Hour”
Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Lisa Peterson
The Word: Good performances all around, but ultimately a play that doesn’t quite reach the heights of its ambitions
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

 

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