Sometimes it’s difficult to review a play when you’re all too familiar with its subject. In recent years, I was an adjunct instructor who taught writing courses at a university. That’s basically the main character and subject of Julia Cho’s new play, “Office Hour,” which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Public Theater.
In her very first scene, Cho blurs the rigid hierarchy of instructors at universities: The full-timers, with or without tenure, travel on a luxury cruise, while the adjuncts paddle around in canoes below, passing each other in the night. It’s the difference between no benefits and full benefits, between making four figures per class and making high-five, low-six figures for teaching only one or two classes more each semester.
Cho disregards this professional chasm in the first scene of “Office Hour.” The responsibility of helping a deeply disturbed student, Dennis (Ki Hong Lee), falls to a lowly adjunct, Gina (Sue Jean Kim), because she and Dennis both happen to be Asian American.
“Maybe you can talk to him,” Gina is told, even though this student needs much more than talk. Indeed, other instructors like David (Greg Keller) and Genevieve (Adeola Role) fear that Dennis is a would-be campus assassin.
I overlooked Cho’s confusion about an adjunct’s status on campus for a couple of reasons. Maybe it’s dramatic license. And more importantly, Cho brings up a subject of real interest when Genevieve complains, “But I couldn’t even flunk [Dennis]. The assignments were complete, on time. Awful, but on time.”
If Genevieve were teaching trigonometry and a student didn’t know his multiplication tables but the assignments were complete and on time, would she not flunk him? And yet, Genevieve has a point when it comes to students in writing classes. If a student can’t put two sentences together but turns in gibberish, an instructor wouldn’t funk him. Arts education at a college level is all too often a scam, with untalented writers, actors and graphic illustrators getting good grades to keep classes full and instructors employed.
This, unfortunately, is not the subject of “Office Hour,” as we soon learn. Unlike the other instructors, Gina makes the effort to empathize with the clearly tortured Dennis, even though she agrees with her colleagues that he is without talent and his prose is so violent and pornographic that students flee her class when his work is read aloud.
Since Dennis is also described as being a mute who wears a hoodie and sunglasses in class, I had to wonder when these offended students ever got the opportunity to hear his short stories and poetry be read aloud. And did Dennis play charades when it came to enacting his own screenplays? More dramatic license, perhaps.
So how violent and pornographic is Dennis’s writing? David and Genevieve each remember a sentence well enough to repeat it verbatim to Gina. Both examples have to do with anal rape. Frankly, anyone attending almost any R-rated movie has heard worse. But the greater point is what anal rape says about Dennis, who wrote the offending passages, or David and Genevieve, who recall the passages word for word, or Cho, who offers in detail only this one act of sexual violence from her character’s supposedly demented prose.
The other thing that “Office Hour” is not about is Gina’s completely inappropriate office behavior. Kim practically sweats maternal concern, making David Mamet’s professor in “Oleanna” look like a model of propriety. Switch the sexes of Gina and Dennis in “Office Hour” and Cho would have a real debate on her hands.
There is a design behind Gina’s inappropriate behavior (physical affection, destruction of property), because she uses it to break through Dennis’s silent, hardened façade to tell him a story about her own Asian immigrant father, who wore a happy-face mask in public but treated his family at home with that same cold silence that she now sees in Dennis (who, as played by Lee, goes from threatening to adorable with uncommon speed).
Gina’s empathy for an initially repellent person forces her to unmask Dennis’s demons and confront her own. Tellingly, both Gina and Dennis are burdened with Western European names, her surname (not revealed in the play) changed through that institution of sexism and patriarchy known as marriage.
In a game of telephone improvisation, Gina manages to unearth a family dynamic at the heart of Dennis’ problem. Frankly, it’s pure dime-store Freud, leaving us with Dennis’ ethnicity in a white world as his real problem.
If there’s any doubt here, David reappears to represent the Great Male Caucasian Villain. It’s odd, and not just because Cho is recycling a scene from “Oleanna.” Until we witness David’s verbal assault, I’d seen this instructor as a hero for having the guts to give Dennis an F in the screenwriting class. Cho conveniently leaves her African-American female character, Genevieve, out of this final confrontation.
In Cho’s Playbill bio, we learn that she went to New York University (my grad school) and Juilliard (where I’ve taken evening classes for years). I’m not sure when Cho attended these schools, but if her Dennis walked through the halls of NYU or Juilliard today he would be advised to take off his dark sunglasses and see that he is part of a sizable minority, if not, in fact, a majority.
Way back in 1980, Alan Parker’s movie “Fame” was laughed at in the gay community for presenting its one and only homosexual character as lonely and disenfranchised at, of all places, New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. In 2017, Cho does something similar with her Dennis character, and it can best be described as victim trolling.
Neel Keller directs some extraordinary scenes of imaginary violence that build to one extended fantasy sequence, which falls flat.
Until recently, playwrights took two and a half hours or more to develop stories about tragic, deeply troubled, violent characters. Shakespeare needed four or five. “Office Hour” is a portrait of a would-be campus assassin in 85 minutes.