Private Jokes, Public Places
By Oren Safdie
April 6-May 13
Aurora Theatre, Berkeley
(l to r) Max Gordon Moore, Robert Parsons, Charles Dean, M.J. Kang. Photo: David Allen.
You wouldn’t think the subject of architecture would be a good foundation upon which to build a comedy. Well, think again. “Private Jokes, Public Places” is as full of laughs as it is peppered with insights into the arcane world of building design. It also manages to touch on racism, social problems, the war between the sexes and the pretensions of academe. All in a scant 90 minutes and then you’re out, your head reeling with information and your belly aching from laughing out loud. This is quite a little play.
The author, Oren Safdie, is the son of renowned architect and Harvard professor Moshe Safdie and evidently imbibed much of the subject matter along with his formula and baby food. Safdie, the Younger, grew up to build theater rather than structures and is presently playwright-in-residence at New York’s La MaMa E.T.C. and interim artistic director of the Malibu Stage Company where a number of his off-Broadway plays, including this one, were born. He also is a screenwriter and a columnist. And quite a clever fellow to boot.
Aurora Theatre in Berkeley has assembled a perfect cast and snagged famed director Barbara Damashek (“Quilters”) to put them through their paces. First up is M.J. Kang (incidentally the playwright’s wife) who originated the part of Margaret in Los Angeles, New York and London. Margaret is an earnest young graduate student, of Korean descent, who is presenting her thesis project – a public swimming pool – to a jury of architects. One of them is her thesis professor, William (Max Gordon Moore), who she happens to be sleeping with. The other two, Erhardt (Robert Parsons), a European import who deals in enormous words and obscure metaphors, and Colin (Charles Dean), a stuffy, self-important pedant, are the cornerstones on which the comic effect is built. Together they badger and intimidate Margaret, Gerhardt with sexual references and attempts at psychoanalysis and Colin with erudite arguments about modernism vs. postmodernism.
These two pretentious guys relentlessly attempt to force Margaret’s work into a category but she refuses to go there. “It would be wonderful if we lived in a word without labels,” intones Colin. “But then, how could we judge anything?” Exactly! The whole thing becomes more about the judging than the thing being judged. The battle, cleverly enhanced by an overhead video screen that works nicely with Kate Boyd’s clean classroom set design, escalates all the way up to a discussion of the meaning of life while the hapless, somewhat nerdy William, acting as peacemaker, gets pretty beaten up in the middle. As does the model of Margaret’s swimming pool. But the pretty graduate student is not without her own resources and there is a surprise ending that just might take your breath away.
The best thing about “Private Jokes, Public Places” may be the plethora of ideas mingled with the hilarity. Something of a rarity, a comedy that makes you think while you laugh. Like all rare things, it shouldn’t be missed.