Before a playwriting class yanked his attention elsewhere, Oren Safdie expected to follow in the footsteps of father Moshe, an Israeli architect of international repute. The former’s “Private Jokes, Public Places” provides compact, biting commentary on the ivory-tower nature of much leading-edge architectural design and criticism. Barbara Damashek’s razor-sharp production for Berkeley’s reliably high-grade, small-scale Aurora Theater Company gets maximum sting out of a work that has remained Safdie’s (“The Last Word,” “Jesus & Jews”) most-produced since its 2001 premiere.
A video monitor opens the one-act, as visiting celebrity jurors gush praise — albeit of an exasperatingly abstruse stripe — over a male student’s thesis-project design in an adjoining room at the National School of Architecture. Nervously fussing over her own project is next candidate Margaret (M. J. Kang, who originated the role and is the author’s spouse). She’s flustered when the judges loll in, bantering and swaggering.
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Guest bigwigs are Erhardt (Robert Parsons), a Teutonic architect of flashy renown dressed in regulation artist black; and persnickety older Brit crit/academe Colin (Charles Dean). Completing the jury is nebbishy William (Max Gordon Moore), repping the institution’s own staff. He’s as intimidated by this illustrious company as he is eager to promote his students’ efforts.
Margaret anxiously outlines the overall aim and details of her project, seen in both a mock-up miniature and blueprints on the wall behind. Inspired by her childhood memories of swim lessons in a dank basement facility with no changing room privacy, she has designed an inner-city public pool emphasizing open space, natural light, and uniquely welcoming particulars.
Yet the jaded jurors immediately start nitpicking at perceived minor flaws — even a glue-spot still wet on the hastily constructed model. They attack Margaret’s idealism with cruel ivory-tower indolence, not to mention self-contradictions, calling her design “too open” yet “too restrictive.” Accorded zero respect by these alleged superiors, Margaret goes from crushed to furious. She assails sacred architectural modernism “designed for mice not people.”
Such impudence enrages her judges — when they’re not at each others’ throats, that is. Colin sees himself as the guardian of intellectual/historical wisdom in this art, while Erhardt strikes a revolutionist pose at odds with his fascistic sense of superiority. Mocked by Colin for designing a span that stops in mid-air (and which some oblivious tourists died falling from), Erhardt shrills, “It’s not a bridge to nowhere! It’s a bridge to contemplate where it goes!”
The leering Erhardt also reveals sexist and racist attitudes. When Margaret (who’s Korean-American) protests, she’s accused of being knee-jerk “politically correct.”
Attempting damage control is William, Margaret’s faculty adviser and (hinted) lover. His frantic efforts at re-framing her work to win over the judges become so spastically garrulous he’s told in no uncertain terms to shut up.
Moore is very funny in this sympathetic/pathetic part, while Parsons and Dean relish pushing their snob-archetype roles to the brink of farcical caricature. As the “straight woman” here, Kang doesn’t get to score any laughs, but her emotional arc is the play’s crux.
Design contribs are all fine-tuned, though Margaret’s miniature ought to more vividly communicate the rightness of her pool design.