Structurally unsound, Oren Safdie’s architecture jargonfest Private Jokes, Public Places shifts uneasily from satire to comedy to farce. When nervous Korean American grad student Margaret (M.J. Kang) presents her model of an indoor swimming pool, two senior professors and her diffident adviser raze her building to bolster their own self-importance. Trembling in her chic black boots, Margaret bleats a defense of her work as her superiors tear it down.
As all of Margaret’s interlocutors are white-male stereotypes—and as Margaret is presented as first cowering while clothed, then mighty while naked—a feminist or racial critique is almost too easy. Sure, the play troublingly suggests that women and nonwhites are anti-intellectual, interested solely in the physical and the emotional, but Safdie’s difficulties exceed p.c. baiting. The final triumph of poor, put-upon Margaret marks the piece as too innocuous for satire, yet too inhumane for comedy. And while Safdie, himself a trained architect, has a fine ear for the absurdity ofacademic argot (and his actors have fine mouths for speaking it), he hasn’t proved himself formally adept enough to construct anything so intricate as a play.