Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Office Hour
South Coast Repertory
Review by Bill Eadie


Sandra Oh and Raymond Lee
Photo by Ben Horak
Playwright Julia Cho is a close observer of how people talk. She realizes that talk can be like a dance: sometimes the movements with one's partner can seem synchronized and graceful, and sometimes they can seem clunky and uncoordinated.

In her new play Office Hour, now in a world premiere production at Orange County's South Coast Repertory Theatre, Ms. Cho turns her attention to a conversation in which one person ostensibly refuses to communicate. It's a touchy, timely, potentially high-stakes subject, and were it not for a thoughtful and beautifully-acted production it might well have been dismissed as clunky and uncoordinated.

Gina (Sandra Oh) teaches creative writing at a college. She's not on the tenure track and the pay is crummy, but she loves to write and loves to teach. In other words, she's pursuing a passion, and she's making her life work despite what her choices have yielded.

As the play opens, Gina learns from colleagues Genevieve (Sola Bamis) and David (Corey Brill) that she's going to have a troubling student in the term that's just beginning—a young man named Dennis (Raymond Lee) who sits in the back of the room with dark glasses and a hoodie pulled up over his cap. He refuses to participate, and he turns in writing that is full of violence and misogynistic sexual acts. Dennis is smart, though. His writing is just promising enough to keep him from failing, and even though he loses the participation points for his class grade, he always turns in his work on time. So, he's gone through Genevieve's and David's classes doing reasonably well. But he's a classic shooter type, Genevieve and David both agree.

Gina decides to require students to come to her office hours and spend 20 minutes so she can get to know them and find out what their goals are as writers. Genevieve and David have warned her that Dennis would likely show up just as she was about to go home and would refuse to talk. As predicted, Dennis appears at about seven minutes before 5pm, and, as predicted, he refuses to talk.

Much of the remainder of the play focuses on the conversation Gina attempts to have with Dennis. She tries everything in her teacher's bag of tricks. She cajoles him, she flatters him, she invokes the class rules, knowing that he won't violate those enough to ruin his grade. Eventually, she provokes him, which does lead to a response. She makes some progress, but Dennis is pretty resistant. Finally, she does something teachers are often unwilling to do: she becomes authentic. She talks to Dennis about her own life, her relationships, her dreams, and her frustrations. She gambles that he will open up in return, resulting in that synchronized and graceful dance that conversation can be.

It isn't easy. Shots are fired, more than once, but even so, the play remains about the dance of the talk.

Neel Keller, an associate artistic director at Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group, has staged Office Hour with the sort of sensitivity and grace it needs. The dynamic between Ms. Oh and Mr. Lee in particular is so captivating that, at the performance I attended, small sounds made by minor movements by audience members felt intrusive. Ms Bamis and Mr. Brill don't rise to that level, but each does well in much smaller roles.

The production looks minimalist, but it turns out to be more elaborate than initial impressions might indicate (scenic design by Takeshi Kata and Se Oh, costume design by Alex Jaeger, lighting design by Elizabeth Harper, and composer/sound design by Peter Bayne).

Nice work by all. It's a short run, though, so hurry or you'll miss it.

South Coast Repertory presents the world premiere of Office Hour, by Julia Cho. Performs through April 30, 2016, Tuesday through Sunday evenings, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays, on the Julianne Argyros Stage, at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. Parking is available in pay structures surrounding the theatre complex. Tickets, starting at $22, are available by calling (714) 708-5555 or by visiting www.scr.org.




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