Private Jokes, Public Places By Oren Safdie. At New End Theatre, London NW3, until 10 December
Why is it that we have had to wait until now for that most theatrical of architectural events - the crit - to become the subject of a drama? Most probably it is because the jargon (the private jokes of the play's title) and the arcane nature of the crit have not seemed immediately palatable to the general public.
With Private Jokes, Public Places, Oren Safdie (son of Moshe, the architect of Habitat '67 in Montreal), largely succeeds in exposing the pretensions at large in schools of architecture. Margaret (M J Kang), a Korean-American diploma student, is the sacrificial victim at the drama's heart. Her scheme, a swimming pool in downtown New York, is clearly of a different order from those of her peers. Hand drawn and physically modelled, it explores the psychological distance required between swimmer and public. It's grounded in a phenomenological approach: 'touchy-feely', as opposed to the technocratic and formal concerns of her fellow-students, all of whose projects are professionally rendered in CAD.
Colin (Robert East), the English guest critic, is a grumpy, technically minded architect who has no sympathy for this sensitive student who refuses to resort to jargon to defend her scheme. Erhardt is the glamorous European (marvellously played by Colin Starkey to look uncannily like Richard Rogers) who castigates Margaret for her lack of an avant-garde 'concept', and proceeds to take apart her scheme which, he says, betrays her psychological history.
The man (in this all-male jury) holding the centre is the young tutor William (Michael Gilroy). While making a show of supporting Margaret, he nonetheless regrets her timidity in rejecting Deconstructivist formal games. (He has retained one of Margaret's earlier 'Decon' models, which she has rejected as being merely fashionable. ) In a poignant soliloquy at the end, Margaret castigates the architectural profession for serving the false gods of pride and ambition instead of a more modest attempt to give people a modicum of comfort, security and delight.
Running for 80 minutes without an interval, the play offers a concentrated satire on architectural pretence (both in school and in practice) which challenges our preconceptions of exactly what constitutes architectural debate.
Perhaps from our side of the Atlantic, its portrayal of a thesis jury seems a little dated, with the eminent critics barely addressing the student project while they engage in pompous verbosity to score points off each other and aunt their superiority. Nonetheless, students, teachers and practitioners will all squirm with discomfort at this welldirected and superbly acted piece, which should be seen in the intimacy of the New End Theatre before any transfer to a larger West End venue dissipates the charged, claustrophobic atmosphere of the crit.
Gerry Adler teaches at the Kent School of Architecture, University of Kent