Architecture student Margaret (M.J. Kang), though nervous and apprehensive, knows why she's constructed the multi-story swimming-pool edifice as she has, and she is prepared to defend it -- or thinks she is. What she's unprepared for is the animosity she faces from the only two (Caucasian) men judging her work: Erhardt (Sebastian Roché), a theorist in love with the sound of his own mumbo-jumbo, and Colin (Geoffrey Wade), a modernist who fears that he's considered obsolete by post- and post-post-modernists. Nor is Margaret ready for her professor, William (Anthony Rapp), to be so wishy-washy about the rude treatment she receives at the hands of these arrogant jerks.
Erhardt and Colin question every particular on which Margaret has based her project and ascribe to her biases that supposedly have arisen from her being a woman and Chinese. (Her declarations that she's Korean fall on deaf ears.) She tries to justify her decisions but is not always unable to do so -- not when Erhardt, dressed entirely in black but for a red scarf hanging around his neck, gives out with utterances like, "Only then will we be able to complete the Tower [of Babel] and be one with God, using him as an iconoclast symbol, of course, rather than anything with religious connotations." Colin, for his part, says such things as "What are ideas but just that -- ideas. Changing your socks once a day is an idea, but it's the ability to remove them from your feet, wash them in a machine, and dry them in the dryer that determines whether they keep your feet warm or give you athlete's foot." To this outburst, Erhardt adds: "You can also try turning them inside out."
Having had almost every aspect of her architectural inspirations trounced by the smug jury of two, Margaret looks as if she's going to admit defeat. But, insisting that she believes in what she has to say and in the primacy of the individual, she ultimately gets the better of her critics -- or, at least she silences them when she finds a way to express herself just before they hurriedly move on to the next victim and the lights fade. (A viewer thinking back to criticisms of the Washington, D.C. Vietnam War Memorial at its proposal hearing might start to wonder if Maya Lin -- whom Margaret may be meant to conjure -- had to undergo anything like this grilling.)
Oren Safdie, the son of Canadian architect Moshe Safdie and a one-time architecture student himself, has quite possibly written this play -- more aptly described as an extended sketch -- out of remembered frustration and a need to redress academic wrongs, if not for himself then for current students. Private Jokes, Public Places could serve as a welcome defense mechanism for candidates readying their projects. But the situation that Safdie depicts here is also a metaphor for myriad others wherein individuals are bullied by their apparent superiors into accepting unfair views of themselves. Certainly, the play has much to say about women who are not taken seriously by men and who find themselves demoralized, whatever the workplace. Since Safdie turned his back on architecture, he may be also implying that it's necessary to turn one's back on professionals in educational arenas who seem intent on turning out cookie-cutter versions of themselves and graduating disciples who will parrot frozen beliefs.
But while Safdie deserves to be patted on the back for championing the suppressed in all fields of endeavor, there's something of the one-sided argument about his playlet. Maybe he felt that, in order to get some humor into the work, he needed to exaggerate the figures -- but only the male characters are exaggerated. Erhardt and Colin are so objectionable that they're easy targets. Safdie signals early on that almost anything they say will border on the ludicrous; they simply won't be worth listening to. Because they are so easily dismissed, their blather too quickly becomes superfluous. While Margaret may feel that she's no match for them, they are -- as the audience experiences them -- no match for her.
Detail, needless to say, is just as important to a theatrical production as it is to an architectural project. Although Private Jokes, Public Places is a chamber piece, it nevertheless includes many details and is admirable in every one. Neil Patel's set design is commendably serviceable; its foremost feature may be the swimming-pool model, which Margaret takes apart repeatedly in order to demonstrate how it functions. Laurie Churba has chosen just the right clothes for the architects -- many architects, of course, are dandies. That obnoxious red scarf is inspired, as is Colin's geometric-design cravat. And there's a Diane von Furstenberg-like dress for Margaret that comes in handy. (The show's lights are by Jeff Croiter and its agitated music by Alexander Janko.)
Maria Mileaf has successfully directed the cast to be unbendingly true to their roles. M.J. Kang is quick and resilient but also, when she needs to be, puzzled and wounded. Sebastian Roché babbles about Babel ebulliently and bullyingly, and he's funny when referring to a bridge that Erhardt built as "a bridge to contemplate where it leads." Geoffrey Wade's Colin is as loathsome as Safdie perhaps unfairly intends him to be, so loathsome that he'd probably be hissed at were he sporting a twirly mustache. Anthony Rapp is so good as the jelly-spined William that he seems to fade into the walls even as he speaks.
In these what-are-we-going-to-do-about-rebuilding-at-Ground-Zero days, architecture may be on the minds of the citizenry more than ever before. For that reason, and because Private Jokes, Public Places is so sassy and nasty, the play has come along at the right time.
[To access Philip Hopkins's review of the La MaMa E.T.C. production of Private Jokes, Public Places in May, please click here.]