Review: ‘Office Hour’ Is the Play That Goes Bang

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At this point, you may recall the events that took place at Virginia Tech in 2007. Ms. Cho has said that she wrote “Office Hour” to explore her response to the massacre there, in which a 23-year-old student named Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people before killing himself. Creative-writing teachers who had read his work, including a violent play called “Richard McBeef,” alerted the school authorities to no avail.

So your tension level will already be high when the scene shifts to the English department office in which Dennis’s new teacher, Gina, meets with her students. It climbs when Dennis enters, his black clothing and bleaker silence effectively rendering him a negative of a person. And it climbs higher yet when you notice the way he clutches his backpack closely at all times. Is he, as one of the other teachers suggested, “a shooter”?

Ten minutes in, with only that question on the table, the play has already painted itself into a corner. What can it do for its 75 remaining minutes except torture us with dread?

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From left, Greg Keller, Adeola Role and Ms. Kim in “Office Hour.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ms. Cho tries to finesse this structural problem by introducing a meta-theatrical game of three-card monte. In a feint reminiscent of the movie “Sliding Doors,” the play “Constellations” and even the musical “If/Then,” she deals out various scenarios of what might happen next and lets you guess which, if any, are real.

In some iterations, Gina gets nowhere in her attempt to pierce Dennis’s dark armor. In others, through a combination of empathy and tough love, she begins to reach him.

It’s hard to pay attention either way, because so many of the vignettes end in varieties of violence. The many peripheral themes intelligently raised — racism, alienation, the futility of creativity — are wiped out as the narrative reshuffles itself and restarts. It doesn’t help that Gina behaves in provocative ways that make sense only if you are a playwright trying to vary the texture of what otherwise amounts to a desperate monologue.

Under the circumstances, Sue Jean Kim, who plays Gina, does a credible job of keeping an incredible character in play. Her emotional legibility goes a long way toward making some scenes bearable, despite the story’s obliterating pressure. And though Mr. Lee is hardly the runty, pockmarked character Ms. Cho describes in the script, he is all too believable as someone so full of self-loathing that he cannot bear to see himself in other people’s eyes.

The production, staged with swift sang-froid by Neel Keller, does what it can to modulate the mood. Where it is possible to admit shards of bitter comedy into a scene, as when Gina imitates her disapproving mother as a way of suggesting a commonality with Dennis, the direction makes the most of it. And I’m glad that Mr. Keller has toned down the most terrifying of Ms. Cho’s devices for involving the audience in the gun culture she’s exploring.

Even toned down, though, the play doesn’t lack for terror. Technically, the production is extremely skillful — you might even say cunning — at producing that response. In Takeshi Kata’s set design, the banal office slides forward out of the dark like a monster emerging from a swamp. And Bray Poor’s sound design, both in its subtleties and outbursts, could hardly be more effective.

But the question remains: effective to what end?

I do not doubt that Ms. Cho intended “Office Hour” to be something more than a thriller. Her previous plays, including “The Language Archive” and “Aubergine,” are quiet, charming, almost whimsical riffs on themes of assimilation and loss of identity.

And here, too, she seems to be interested in finding something to add to the painful national conversation about guns besides more pain. In the opening scene among the instructors, one, a poet named Genevieve, introduces a subtle point. “There are broken people — always have been, always will,” she says. “But now? It’s like they’ve been given ideas.”

You expect the word “guns” there, not “ideas,” and the link between them is one I wish Ms. Cho had considered further. At one point, she seems to get close. “The temptation is that we should write bigger than ourselves or more than ourselves, like writing is some kind of shadow we cast, and we want to throw the biggest shadow possible,” Gina tells Dennis. But “the simpler, the truer, the more close to actual size the writing is, the better.”

With the problem of gun violence in the United States so out of scale, it’s hard to tell whether Ms. Cho is excusing the overreach of “Office Hour” with this line, or, like me, damning it.

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