Review: ‘Private Jokes, Public Places’ a wordy comedy 

The Aurora Theatre Company has always attracted an academic-minded audience, which it draws from nearby UC Berkeley. So a play such as "Private Jokes, Public Places" would seem an ideal fit.

The wordy comedy, in which Margaret, a Korean-American architecture student, defends her thesis project (a model of a public swimming pool) for a committee of professors, should provide just the right kind of food for thought to satisfy Aurora’s intellectualviewers.

But, while Oren Safdie’s lengthy, one-act satire appears to offer lots of ideas about the ultimate purpose of architecture (the playwright’s father was architect Moshe Safdie), it really all boils down to the question of whether public building design should serve the needs of the people — as the idealistic, socially conscious Margaret passionately claims — or promote the art form itself.

Architects must move beyond barriers of floor, ceiling, wall, intones one of the two smirking, pedantic professors. Only then will we be "one with God!" He tells earnest Margaret that she’s suppressing her subconscious creativity.

The other compares Margaret’s swimming pool to both a "cheap motel along the turnpike" and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Director Barbara Damashek ratchets up the comedy, but the effort feels forced. Longtime Berkeley actor Charles Dean, usually so astute, indulges in a mannered, effete caricature, mugging for all he’s worth and affecting a British accent for no particular reason. Robert Parsons, a similarly strong local actor, fares better as a smarmy, pretentious German, despite an unconvincing accent. Max Gordon Moore is more successful, nicely underplaying his role as Margaret’s bumbling, befuddled mentor. But M.J. Kang, who originated the role of Margaret in the 2001 Los Angeles production — and also played in the Off-Broadway and West End productions — is a disappointment. Her vocal delivery is screechy and monotonous, her performance lacking nuance and variation. (Ironically, the role was written for her; she’s married to the playwright.)

However, it must be mentioned that the opening night audience hooted with appreciative laughter throughout.

Private Jokes, Public Places **

Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, closes May 13

Tickets: $38

Contact: (510) 843-4822 or www.auroratheatre.org

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