The most impressive thing about the Aurora regional premiere of Canadian playwright Oren Safdie’s Private Jokes, Public Places is that it manages to be funny even when you have no idea what anyone’s talking about. As architects reviewing students’ thesis projects, Charles Dean and Robert Parsons spew out a pretentious stream of art-crit cant that makes your head spin. Max Gordon Moore is equally convoluted in the arguments he offers as an eager-to-please architecture teacher out of his depth.
As the frustrated Margaret, M.J. Kang seems to champion common sense in defending the model of a public swimming pool she has submitted as her thesis, but as her agitation increases her voice loses all nuance of inflection so her words scarcely register. What comes across is that she’s pissed off and sure doesn’t like to be defined.
Playwright Safdie is an architecture grad and the son of noted architect Moshe Safdie, and no doubt some of the reasons he decided to become a playwright instead are being aired here. There must be additional levels to the satire for academic insiders to appreciate, but when the jargon becomes gibberish, nonarchitects have to rely upon the body language for most of the comedy and drama. On that level, Barbara Damashek’s fast-paced production has a lot to offer.
Even without the bow tie and plummy English accent, the unctuous Colin gives an immediate taste of how infuriatingly smug he’ll prove to be, with his arms crossed tightly while sucking in his lips and smacking them. No less overbearing, there’s a snakelike quality to Parsons’ German Erhardt, particularly his devilish leer as he tries to pick up on Margaret by indulging her arguments while dismissing her work. The two are parodies of the modernist and postmodernist movements, and certainly that comes across in their digs at each other’s work. But much more entertaining are the irrelevant minutiae on which the architects harp while picking apart Margaret’s project, and the way Erhardt’s vocalizations make her squirm.
Margaret has every reason to be testy, but when she speaks up she doesn’t come off as sympathetic so much as defensive, petulant, and very, very young. In a role she originated in a play written for her by husband Safdie, Kang doesn’t have a voice strong enough to carry off Margaret’s counterattacks.
Kate Boyd’s sleek white institutional set adds to the dehumanization of the action, as does production assistant Dustin Brown’s omnipresent videocamera offering distorted close-ups on a screen.
Private Jokes feels more like an extended satirical sketch than a play. Its R-rated ending is gratuitous, a closing jolt substituting for resolution. The irreconcilable aesthetic differences and academic infighting are ultimately private jokes that lose something when aired in public places.