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The Architecture of a Hit Comedy: Safdie's 'Private Jokes, Public Places'

By Kristin Sterling

Private Jokes, Public Places" Cast: Anthony Rapp, Geoffrey Wade, M.J. Kang, and Sebastian Roche
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

Oren Safdie intended to follow in the footsteps of his father, noted Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. But during his last semester at Graduate School for Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP '90), he took an elective course in playwriting and ended up building a different sort of structure -- a critically acclaimed one-act play about architecture and academia now playing Off-Broadway.

"Private Jokes, Public Places," which debuted in Los Angeles and then played Off-Off Broadway at La MaMa last spring, is now running, appropriately enough, at the Theater at the Center for Architecture in Greenwich Village .

The comedy tells the story of Margaret, a Korean-American architecture student, played by Safdie's wife, M.J. Kang, who is defending her thesis project -- a public swimming pool -- before two prominent, white architects and a professor/mentor. Margaret faces two judges with vastly different approaches to architecture who criticize her mercilessly while battling each other. Anthony Rapp, best known for his Obie Award-winning role in the original cast of "Rent," plays her teacher in the play, directed by Maria Mileaf. The New York Times praised Safdie's "verbal acrobatics" in his "bright comedy deriding empty-headed pretensions among celebrities of structure."

"The fact that it is a female student presenting to three males definitely brings up issues of sexual politics as well as race," says Safdie. "But I was more interested in creating tension and a real challenge to Margaret -- the character. Here she is in their world, yet she is able to rise above the fray and stand up for herself. More than gender, this play is about standing up for one's own beliefs."

Safdie teamed up with Steven Chaikelson, the current theater arts chair at the School of the Arts (CC '89, Law '92, SOA '93) and alumnus Brannon Wiles, who produced the play in its current incarnation. Among Chaikelson and Wiles' other projects were "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and "Fool Moon" on Broadway.

"Oren came to Columbia and didn't hide out at the School of Architecture ," says Chaikelson. "He took advantage of the best that Columbia has to offer: the opportunity to work with the best and the brightest faculty and students both in his chosen concentration and in other areas of interest, as well as having access to the tremendous resources of New York City .

"I don't have a background in architecture, and yet when I first read 'Private Jokes' on the subway I found myself laughing out loud," Chaikelson continues. "It's about so much more than architecture. In particular, I think it is relevant to anyone involved with academia."

After getting his degree in architecture, Safdie went on to study playwriting at Columbia 's School of the Arts (SOA, '92) with such writers as Bob Montgomery, Romulus Linney, Austin Flint and Eduardo Machado. He also started a small theater company, the West End Gate Theater Bar.

"It was the best thing I did during that time. Every three weeks we put on a show of student work, and had some pretty great people get their first shot there," Safdie says. "Amanda Peet got her first acting job there. Ethan Hawke, Cara Buono, Nick Sandow and many others worked there."

Safdie has also written several other plays, including "Jews & Jesus" and "Laughing Dogs," and a film script, "You Can Thank Me Later."

Private Jokes, Public Places currently is playing at the Theater at the Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Place , in Greenwich Village . For details or tickets visit www.private-jokes.com or call 212-239-6200.

Published: Dec 22, 2003
Last modified: Apr 26, 2004

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