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A CurtainUp Review
Office Hour

All I know is there's something wrong with him. Something very wrong. And I don'tknow. Maybe ten years ago, that wouldn't have worried me so much. Like, there are broken people—always have been, always will. But now? It's like they've been given ideas. There used to be stuff that you couldn't imagine happening. But now you can. Maybe that's what scares me. The thing out there that we haven't imagined yet because we can't imagine it. But the broken ones can.
— Genevieve

                 Office Hours Sue Jean Kim (Gina), Ki Hong Lee (Dennis) (Photo:Carol Rosegg)
I've been following Julia Cho's career for more than a dozen years (see links to reviews at end of this review). My favorite, Durango, like many that followed refreshingly explored the lives of some as yet not much written about Korean-Americans. Thus the New York premiere of Ms. Cho's latest, Office Hour, marks a double return: Like Durango, its New York run is at the Public's Martinson Theater and its all too timely plot focuses on two Korean-American characaters — Dennis (Ki Hong Lee), a disturbed Korean-American English major at an unnamed university and Gina (Sue Jean Kim), the Korean-American adjunct professor trying desperately to reach him before his personal tragedy becomes yet another horrifyingly bigger one.

Seeing this play a day after the latest horrific mass killing right in my own city made watching it painfully relevant. Writing this review as yet another shooter let loose on those attending a church in Texas, killing whole families, is even more painful — especially since Ms. Cho can offer no neat, healing answers as to how we can find a way to predict and prevent these events.

That said, Office Hour, effectively adds an as yet little explored racial component to the frightening range of dysfunctional people using powerful rifles and other weapons of mass destruction to vent their frustrations at gathering places that once felt safe.

We don't actually meet Dennis, the misfit at the heart of Office Hour, until Takeshi Kata's deceptively simple set makes a dramatic shift. This more detailed location switch accommodates the complex and tense situation that plays out during Dennis's scheduled appointment for Gina's one-on-one office hour.

Though not physically present during the opening meeting between three of the unnamed university's English teachers, Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) is the topic of conversation. In fact, their coffee-klatsch is prompted by the frustration of poetry teacher Genevieve (Adeola Role) and stage and screen writing teacher David (Greg Keller) to get the university to do something about Dennis's disruptive and potentially dangerous behavior.

While Genevieve and David are happy to be done with Dennis's violent writing and sinister get-up of sun glasses and hoodie, they worry about his continued presence in anyone's classroom. Though their chief function in the play is to set up the main situation by sharing their concerns about Dennis with Gina in whose writing class he's now registered.

As David explains, and Genevieve confirms in the above quoted comment, these aren't normal times. If Dennis is allowed to remain at the school without some effective intervention, neither they or anyone there is safe.

And so they pin their hopes on Gina, since they imply that her being Korean-American gives her the advantage of sharing and understanding the young man's cultural background — an astute way for Cho pack the issue of age and status crossing racial prejudice into the other issues that are part of any conversation about these ever increasing acts of unfathomable and seemingly unstoppable violence.

While Adela Role reappears only briefly, the always impressive Greg Keller does get another scene in which to make a strong impression. However, most of the tense 90 minutes that follow the three teachers' confab are between Gina and the student who she's requited to attend her office hour for 20 minutes if he wants a passing grade in her class, with both Sue Jean Kim and Ki Hong Lee giving affecting performances.

Gina is younger than her colleagues and more hopeful and open to the idea that Dennis is more needy than dangerous. And so when he finally arrives (his lateness just one more demonstration of his aggressive, non-conformist behavior), she tries out every trick in her teacher's bag of skills to get him to interact with her and thus open the door to helping him deal with whatever pain is causing his self-destructive behavior.

It's when she allows her own conflicted personal history to be part of this fraught student-teacher conversation that Gina does break through to him. He takes off the glasses. He talks. He accepts the paper she hands him and scribbles away at a more realistic story she assigns to him.

But this isn't a feel good variation of the real-life horror stories that served as the inspiration for this play (specifically, two college tragedies by an Asian-American shooter) and as I write this unfortunately punctuated it with real time new examples of mass shootings.

From the moment he enters the room Ki Ho Ling's Dennis is scary enough to spread a wave of tension and discomfort through the room. Even when he talks and complies with Gina's assignment to write something more realistic and less violence filled, there's no lifting the aura of discomfort.

The script, as abetted by Neel Keller's taut direction, Christopher Ackerlind's lighting and Bray Moor's soundscape gives Gina's efforts and Dennis's responses a truly scary and dramatically provocative edge that takes it into psychological thriller territory. I won't go into more specific details about how they do this, since it needs to be seen.

Obviously, this isn't a get-away-from-it-all entertainment. But it does add a potent chapter in the story of individuals with the ability to terrify others and make them part of their own journey to destroying themselves.

Other plays by Julia Cho reviewed at Curtainup:
The Architecture of Loss 2004
BFE 2005
Durango 2006
The Piano Teacher 2007
The Language Archive 2010
The Piano Teacher 2007

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Office Hour by Julia Cho
Directed by Neel Keller
Cast: Greg Keller (David), Sue Jean Kim (Gina), Ki Hong Lee (Dennis), Adeola Role (Genevieve)
Scenic design by Takeshi Kata
Costume design by Kaye Voyce
Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind
Original music and sound design by Bray Poor
Stage Manager: Jennifer Rae Moore
Runnning Time: Approx. 90 minutes, no intermission
Public Theater
From 10/17/17; opening 11/08/17; closing 12/03/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 4th press matinee

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