Now Playing



Berkeley Rep's New School-Shooting Play Isn't Just Terribly Timed—It's Plain Terrible

In its bid to unpack school shootings, Office Hour fails painfully.

Daniel Chung (Dennis) in Julia Cho’s Office Hour, directed by Lisa Peterson. A co-production with Long Wharf Theatre.

 

That Office Hour, the provocative new play from Julia Cho that opened at Berkeley Rep Thursday evening, feels as topical as it does is a result of catastrophically bad timing. And yet awful timing alone isn’t enough to justify this level of violence.

Cho’s production, directed by Berkeley Rep associate director Lisa Peterson, centers on a confrontation between an English teacher and a troubled college student, played by Daniel Chung. Embodying every cliche in our collective post-Columbine consciousness, he dresses all in black and rarely speaks. He wears a hoodie and ballcap to hide his face. He clogs his creative writing assignments with graphic scenes of torture, gore, and sexual depravity. (Does he play shoot-em-up video games? We don’t know, but all the signs are there.) What begins as a meditation on violent male rage and the inadequacy of underpaid, untrained teachers to confront it, sadly evaporates into—literally—a hail of bullets. Over its 80-minute runtime, the audience is pulverized with exactingly realistic tableaus of school shootings—at various points, a student draws a pistol from his backpack and kills his teacher; a teacher shoots her student; passersby are shot from windows; teachers cower in hiding from an assault-weapon-toting figure in riot gear.

Too soon? That may be an understatement. Art can and should confront painful and uncomfortable societal issues, particularly those as shameful as our ongoing national epidemic of mass shootings, epitomized by the one that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida two weeks ago. Here, though, we’re offered a mix of smug liberal cliches with clunkingly obvious metaphors that Barton Fink would reject as too on-the-nose. “Aren’t you worried about him having a gun?” one English lecturer asks another. “No,” comes the reply, “I’m worried that we all have guns.” Cue chin stroking and sober murmurs of agreement.

Thanks to a fractured narrative structure, the boy, Dennis, doesn’t carry out just one shooting, but many. Each are only in his teacher’s worried imagination, but each is carried out with a pornographic attention to detail. Gina, the well-intentioned adjunct, tries to stem off what she fears she sees coming by asking the boy into office hours. It never quite comes into focus why she invests so much effort into cracking him open, beyond the requirements of the script. Maybe it’s that they are both Korean-Americans? Or that she just needs him to stop freaking out the other students? Maybe she just believes in the therapeutic healing power of writing. (There are more self-conscious appeals to the healing power of writing here than in a whole semester of MFA projects.)

That confrontation plays out the worst tropes of how we grapple with school shootings and the disaffected, monosyllabic young men who carry them out: At one point, Gina follows the boy around stage, begging him to explain himself. But to explain what? If anything, our real-life shooters are too articulate. The manifestos of Dylan Klebold, Elliot Rodgers, Anders Breivik, and Seung Hui Cho—whose 2007 Virginia Tech case that in part inspired the script—seem to have achieved immortality on the worst parts of the internet. As the students at Parkland have shown, listening to the perpetrators turns out to be far less productive—or instructive—than listening to the victims, whom Cho ignores entirely, instead handing preachy monologues to the shooter about the loneliness of late night donut shops and the specter of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He may end up humanized, but at the cost of bludgeoning the audience into shock.

This isn’t just sensitive material; it’s nuclear-grade stuff. And it needs to be handled as such. Cho’s play aims for gritty and realistic, but instead ends up feeling gratuitous and revolting. Berkeley Rep should have taken a cue from what Jackie Chung’s character does to the pages of a smut novel written by her student shooter, and thrown the script out the window.

 

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Follow us on Twitter at @sanfranmag
Email Scott Lucas at slucas@modernluxury.com
Follow Scott Lucas @ScottLucas86