Review: `Private Jokes, Public Places’

Opened Thursday, April 12, 2007, Aurora Theatre Company

Aurora exposes laughs, drama in Public Places
Two [1/2] stars Sturdy laughs

Building a play about architecture is a tricky business.

Certainly architecture is something that affects each of us every day, even though we probably don’t think about it much beyond, doors, walls and windows.

Playwright Oren Safdie, son of famed architect Moshe Safdie, received his MFA degree in architecture from Columbia but ended up constructing a play about architecture for his wife, actress/playwright M.J. Kang.

The play, Private Jokes, Public Places, opened Thursday at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company starring Kang as Margaret, a grad student at the National School of Architecture making her thesis presentation to a panel of three judges.

There’s a twitchy Brit (Charles Dean), an ego-brandishing German (Robert Parsons) and a milquetoast American (Max Gordon Moore), who also happens to have a little crush on Margaret.

The 80-minute play transpires in real time, and we in the audience are far from impassive. We’re fellow grad students and guests observing the judging process.

More entertaining for its flashes of satirical humor than for its insights into the world of design, director Barbara Damashek’s production is slick but lacking in punch.

The tone varies from the broadly comic to the deadly serious, and that variation creates a wobbly foundation.

Dean and Parsons seem to relish creating broad caricatures of their snooty Euro designers. The Brit is the “dinosaur,’’ a sniffy traditionalist in little round glasses, a bow tie and argyle socks (costumes by Brandin Baron), while the German is the black-clad post-post-modern windbag who bandies about phrases like “protean trajectories.’’
In full-on blowhard mode, both actors generate big laughs. For instance, Parsons, defending an avant-garde project of his, stammers: “It’s not a bridge to nowhere. It’s a bridge to contemplate where it leads.’’

There’s also some well-executed physical comedy, as when Moore, frightened by his European compatriots, comes running into the room, plops himself in a folding chair and promptly falls flat onto his back.

In the midst of such lively buffoonery, we have Kang’s Margaret, an earnest, intelligent young woman with little patience for her judges’ self-inflated pronouncements and exhortations. Her design project is for an impressive public swimming pool that is thoughtful, progressive and highly functional.

Such practicality, even though it’s well designed, doesn’t sit well with the judges, who care more about ideas than people. This angers Margaret, and at one point she shouts back at a judge: “What has modernism done for the people?’’

We’re expected to accept that Margaret’s journey from the beginning of her presentation to its stormy, soul- (and body-) baring conclusion is not the stuff of comedy, but genuine, reality-based drama.

It’s a difficult leap to make, especially when the play turns into what amounts to a trial, with Margaret on the defensive and the German judge, once he stops talking about the “power of the Gestalt,’’ is her self-appointed prosecutor.

In form, the play is lovely – Kate Boyd’s clean, white classroom set comes complete with architecturally appropriate beams crossing the airspace over the stage – and the performances are energetic, especially Kang’s when she gets worked up into a righteous lather about architecture’s true function in the world.

As a complete unit, however, the pieces of Private Jokes, Public Places don’t quite come together.

For information about “Private Jokes, Public Places,’’ visit

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