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Berkeley Rep’s ‘Office Hour’ plays on fear of mass shootings

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Daniel Chung and Jackie Chung appear in Julia Cho’s “Office Hour” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

The first scene of “Office Hour” feels eerily familiar.

Three writing teachers at a nameless university gather to discuss a student whose behavior is causing serious concerns. Dennis, two of them insist, is clearly troubled and almost certainly dangerous. It’s not just that he comes to class in a black hoodie and sunglasses; he never speaks, and his writing is alarming, full of brutal imagery and terrifying acts of sexual violence.

“All I know is something is wrong with him,” says one. “He’s a classic shooter,” says another.

Julia Cho’s drama, which opened Thursday in a new Berkeley Repertory Theatre production directed by Lisa Peterson, may strike audiences as a direct response to last month’s massacre in Parkland, Fla. But Cho actually wrote it after the events at Virginia Tech in 2007, where a student shot and killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself.

Then again, mass shootings seem to follow one after another these days, and “Office Hour” achieves its dramatic tension — and a considerable feeling of dread — merely by suggesting the possibility of one.

It falls to Gina (Jackie Chung), the third of the three teachers, to assess the situation. She’s yet to encounter Dennis (Daniel Chung), and when he arrives for the first of several short, after-hours sessions with her, he seems unapproachable — either silently clutching a large, weighty backpack, or erupting in angry outbursts.

Gina finally gets him to open up. There are strong similarities in their Asian-American backgrounds, and — perhaps more importantly — she can see that Dennis actually has potential as a writer. Still, it’s clear that whatever’s in that backpack is going to come out, and indeed it does, in a series of quick-change alternate outcomes — some more horrifyingly tragic than others.

Cho, whose family drama “Aubergine” was a hit for Berkeley Rep a few seasons back, has a keen ear for dialogue, and Peterson keeps the pacing brisk and tight. Both Chungs — Jackie Chung as the determined, tightly wound Gina, and Daniel Chung as the angry, damaged Dennis — play their roles to the hilt, and Jeremy Kahn (David) and Kerry Warren (Genevieve) are spot-on as Gina’s frightened colleagues.

Despite the performances, and those alternate endings, it’s hard to feel that much of import has happened when all is said and done. Cho manages to play on our fears without offering a clearly defined sense of resolution.

Still, “Office Hour” gives the audience plenty to consider about students and teachers, schools and mass shootings. At least, until the next one happens.

Office Hour
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 25
Tickets: $29.50 to $85
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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