‘Office Hour’ at Berkeley Rep is provocative, uncomfortable — but to what end?

Kevin Berne / Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Courtesy

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Five minutes after the start of Julia Cho’s “Office Hour,” you know you don’t want to be there. You fidget around in your seat, counting all of the exits just in case, before you notice that the person next to you and the person next to them are both doing the same.

This discomfort stems from Dennis (Daniel Chung), or what we’ve been told about Dennis. He writes all of his assignments on gore, guns and “butt-rape.” He is designated a potential school shooter — one just waiting to explode — by his former adjunct professors Genevieve (Kerry Warren) and David (Jeremy Kahn). So when Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis’ current creative writing adjunct, calls him into her office hour session for a 20-minute chat about his behavior, the audience cannot help but expect the worst.

The worst does happen. But then it doesn’t. And then it does again.

“Office Hour,” which opened March 1 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre under the direction of Lisa Peterson, experiments with all of the possible directions their conversation could take. One path leads to almost immediate death, while another leads to an unwarranted kiss, and so on. The result is an ultra-violent, “choose your own adventure” story that is equal parts unsettling and tense.

This plot device is grounded, at least at first, by the kinetic energy Daniel Chung and Jackie Chung inject into Dennis and Gina. Cho’s dialogue brings humanity to the characters — it’s incredibly enjoyable and quippy, even in the face of situations that couldn’t be more serious. The complex way in which Gina plays with humor to unravel and relate to Dennis is wholly endearing. As played by Jackie Chung, her performance somehow balances being both scared shitless and naively hopeful with ease, emoting both feelings with a single word or action.

Dennis, too, is played by Daniel Chung with notable versatility in a role that often only requires his silence and foreboding presence. The minute Dennis takes off his hood and tinted glasses, Chung’s piercing gaze is terrifying, angry and undeniably human.

Yet as the lights flash on and off, the performance resets itself from one possible path to the next. As a result, the tension “Office Hour” worked so hard to establish in its opening scenes falters. The play dilutes itself — who cares how or why Gina or Dennis die when the “redo” button will be hit in a couple of minutes, anyway?

The heart-in-your-throat, terrified grip “Office Hour” had in its first scenes slowly subsides into an experience that feels more like a violent video game. With the knowledge that you possess an infinite number of lives and resets, you become immune to the violence, playing without any concern for keeping the characters alive.

The action onstage so desensitized the audience to the play’s material that by the second or third “reset,” fits of laughter actually began to break out from the crowd. Turning the socio-political issues surrounding gun violence into a laughing matter is likely not something Cho had in mind while writing “Office Hour,” but it was the play’s unfortunate effect nevertheless.

Kevin Berne / Berkeley Repertory Theatre / Courtesy

Kevin Berne / Berkeley Repertory Theatre / Courtesy

“Office Hour” too often straddles the line between being provocative and being exploitative. The climax, in particular, is a fast-forwarding parade of deadly “what-ifs.” Within a roughly two-minute period, we see about 20 different confrontations play out, each separated by flashing lights, each bloodier than the one that came before.

This scene is overblown, forcefully so, and it’s tacked on — almost as if Cho needs to scream how “postmodern” her play is. It takes characters that Daniel Chung and Jackie Chung carefully cultivated and turns them into chess pieces to fulfill Cho’s message. They devolve from humans to plot devices.

“Office Hour” doesn’t have a duty to comfort us, but its decision to sacrifice its characters and relationships for theatrics, especially when its whole premise is built around disassembling “otherness” through empathy, is discomforting.

How can Julia Cho expect the audience to reach out, relate and empathize with her show when “Office Hour” fails so heavily on that front?

“Office Hour” will play through March 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre.

Contact Nils Jepson at [email protected].