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M.J. Kang and David Chandler in Private Jokes, Public Places
(Photo © David Gochfeld)
Margaret, a Korean-American architecture graduate student, is presenting her thesis -- a design for an indoor swimming pool facility -- to a jury of famous architects. The jury consists of two European men, Erhardt and Colin, whose narcissistic commentary reveals more about them than the work at hand. Margaret weathers attacks that seem gender-motivated, finds herself compared repeatedly to a Chinese architect, and endures contradictory but damning assessments of her work. In the process, Margaret is reduced to tears but learns a simple lesson: Her value does not flow from others. The pretentious jerks from Europe move on to the next student's piece, happy as ever with themselves. Curtain.

Oren Safdie's comedy Private Jokes, Public Places received praise in Los Angeles upon its premiere there, and elsewhere. Son of the well known architect Moshe Safdie and himself a graduate of Columbia's architecture school, the author knows the topic of which he writes. But the play's the thing: This one amuses with its shots at worthy targets but doesn't make us laugh hard enough or care deeply about its ideas or its characters.

Safdie's impulse to examine and satirize contemporary architectural theory is laudable, as is his desire to skewer the kinds of professional and academic narrowness that exists in so many fields. But Private Jokes, Public Places does so in a manner so facile that we know precisely what the targets are, and the manner in which they'll be struck, within the first five minutes. There are no surprises here. Even the grand gesture at the end is telegraphed and unsubtle, failing to add heft to the proceedings. Most ironically, the human element is downplayed even as the play charges that architecture ignores people and takes itself too seriously.

We don't learn much about Margaret (M. J. Kang) or anyone else in the play, which also depicts her graduate advisor, William (Fritz Michel), as an insufficiently comic peripheral. We don't even know what we're supposed to think about Margaret's breakdown, which occurs when Erhardt (David Chandler) browbeats her into defending her design's stylistic uniqueness with the admission that she believes she is different, even superior, to the other students. All we learn is that the two famous, obnoxious architects are typical of their kind and that Margaret is best off ignoring them.

Safdie has a down-to-earth sense of humor on which he should capitalize more often. What the playwright hopes will carry us through is our laughter and astonishment at the absurdity of discourse within the highest architectural circles; but this private joke is not so private anymore, having been the subject of a best-selling book of the 1980s, Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House. While the last word surely hasn't been written on the topic, Safdie sends up the doctrines without exploring them in depth. Not every contemporary idea about architecture is bankrupt; most of them have both merits and faults, but one wouldn't know that from this play.

Speeches by Erhardt, the idealist neo-Freudian motivated by social revolution, are entertaining, even if Chandler slips in and out of an accent that sounds French (although Erhardt is a Germanic name and the character mentions having been in Russia). Speeches by Colin (Graeme Malcolm), the British engineer-architect whose view is a bit more interesting, are less entertaining -- partly because Colin's oratory peaks later, after we've tired of the men's bluster.

Sadly, what these experts believe never much interests us because of Private Jokes' refusal to invest even momentary validity in either of their perspectives. They come across as empty prattlers from the start; we listen to them snipe at one another in polysyllables, sometimes amusingly, while we harbor the hope that Margaret's design represents the possibility of smart design. Yet even Margaret's uncorrupted talent and her sensitivity to the public is assaulted, her stated desire to make users of her building comfortable collapsing under obvious questions.

When handled with dramaturgical skill, a satire of a profession can be stretched into a one-act, but a full-length play should conjure a situation more compelling than a graduate peer review. Yasmina Reza's Art, to which this play has been compared, is not a model of complexity and depth, but it savvily put a lifelong friendship at stake as a result of the central argument. The best recent example of this kind of work was Evan Smith's Psych, about a psychology grad student whose professors harm her professionally and personally. Instead of restricting itself to an inherently artificial academic setting, that play took us deftly through its characters' real (if absurd) lives. Private Jokes doesn't do the same.

Not helping matters is the limp direction of Craig Carlisle, which fails to overcome the script's problems and even exacerbates some of them. Overall, Private Jokes, Public Places is an awkward, occasionally humorous play on a subject in dire need of further treatment.

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