Mass shootings, a staple of CNN programming, are so routine in America that it's no wonder this kind of violence has become part of the background fear of contemporary life.
In "Office Hour," having its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, playwright Julia Cho explores the insidious effect of this pervasive anxiety on the way we interact with people who raise alarm bells for whatever reason. Difference, long accustomed to being disparaged, is increasingly seen as a threat that needs to be wiped out, as anyone following the Republican presidential primary can confirm.
The play, which stars Sandra Oh ("Grey's Anatomy," "Sideways") in top form as an adjunct writing instructor concerned about a troubled student, was influenced by two shootings involving young Asian American perpetrators — an incident at Virginia Tech in 2007 and a more recent occurrence near UC Santa Barbara.
Cho, author of "The Language Archive" and "The Piano Teacher" (both produced at SCR), is curious about the intersection of private and public selves, the way psychology and culture mutually express each other. This is apparent in the opening scene, in which Oh's character, Gina, is briefed by two other writing faculty members about her current student, a withdrawn young Asian American man they deem a campuswide danger.
Genevieve (Sola Bamis) and David (Corey Brill) have taken it upon themselves to tip off Gina about Dennis (Raymond Lee), whose writing is loaded with pornographic violence so disturbing that students don't want to be in the same room as him.
David, not one to pull punches, calls him "a classic shooter." When Gina doesn't seem entirely convinced, he lays out his case: "I mean, look at the profile: Painfully socially awkward. Totally isolated. Delusional — he thinks he's a great writer. Obsessed with violence. Oh — and this is the scary part — most likely no history of documented mental illness. And he's probably committed zero crimes. He could just waltz into a Dick's Sporting Goods and arm himself to the teeth."
Genevieve hopes that Gina will attempt a personal intervention. Why Gina? Well, she's his current teacher and, as Genevieve awkwardly puts it, they "must have stuff in common — not psychologically but, you know, a background."
Oh's portrayal of Gina in this opening scene sets up Cho's drama with extraordinary delicacy. You can see Gina twinge as her colleagues make assumptions and pass judgments on Dennis, scornfully referring to his "precious GPA" and mocking him for no doubt being a virgin. She knows they have her safety at heart, but she can't help wincing at the stereotypes they're unthinkingly reinforcing.
The heart of this intermission-less, barely 90-minute drama, directed by Neel Keller with unwavering tension, is Gina's interaction with Dennis during her office hours. When Dennis first appears, wearing sunglasses and a baseball hat covered by a hood, he refuses to speak and hardly even acknowledges her presence.
Gina is naturally put off, but she's too scared to leave matters to chance. Her sympathies have also been activated. Writers imagine the lives of others, and Gina, confronted with her student's recalcitrant silence, plunges herself immediately into his alienation.
Conducting ad hoc therapy, she speculates on what Dennis may be feeling based on her general understanding of human behavior and her own intimate knowledge of what it means to be racially marginalized.
Cho, who's having quite a good season (her play "Aubergine," a moving drama about food and family, opened this year at Berkeley Repertory Theatre), doesn't sentimentalize the situation in the slightest.
Dennis' behavior does indeed seem pathological, Gina's stumbling attempts to reach him aren't very professional, and her colleagues have warned her for her own good. The complexity of the drama forces us to think more deeply about questions that the playwright, to her credit, doesn't have answers for. Uncertainty is strategically integrated into her storyline.
The play — staged with simple effectiveness on a bare-bones academic set by Takeshi Kata and Se Oh that's lyrically lifted by Elizabeth Harper's lighting — employs a strategy that nearly gave me a heart attack the first time around. Rather than spoil the effect, let's just say that Cho is interested in the way our unconscious minds are constantly rehearsing the possible horrors of every suspicious encounter.
"Office Hour" tunes into the paranoia running rampant in a society in which the realities of mass slaughter and untreated mental illness have made this response all too rational. But it also exposes the retaliatory violence focused on "the other," the figure on the fringe acting strangely in an America awash in guns, mistrust and intolerance.
Lee's performance grows as Dennis begins to share fragments of his story through clenched teeth to Gina. You see glimpses of a soul buried under a lifetime of shame.
Initially, it seemed as if Cho might have painted herself into a corner with a character who refuses even to grunt in response to Gina's queries. But his reticence provides an opportunity for Gina to fill the vacuum.
Her desperate need to connect reveals her own pain. (Helping another is never an entirely selfless act.) In seeking to earn Dennis' trust, she ends up exposing herself in a way that is both courageous and at times a little shocking.
Oh beautifully humanizes this dimension of the play. She shades with exquisite finesse Gina's vulnerability as a woman picking up after a failed marriage, as a writer scraping by as an underpaid academic and as an Asian American carrying the secret struggles of her family.
"Office Hour" has undeniable topicality, but its enduring interest may have more to do with the embattled subject of identity than with the ramifications of our lunatic gun culture. This is a small play, but before you realize it, its rippling current has taken you far from the safety of shore.