A family affair at the Center For Architecture



The private jokes in “Private Jokes, Public Places” are those perpetrated by a couple of intellectual snobs — one German, one British — at the expense of a young woman named Margaret whom they are grilling about her schematics and scale model for a public swimming pool. The public place is, ergo — here, in miniature, and in her head — that swimming pool.

Margaret, a graduate student in architecture now facing her final academic jury, is a knockout Korean-born girl in her 20s. She is played by M.J. Kang, who happens to be a knockout Korean-born, Toronto-raised young woman in her 20s. She is also the wife of Oren Safdie, who wrote “Private Jokes, Public Places” — in fact, rewrote it after he’d met and married her.

The show was such a hit last year at La MaMa (where Oren and M.J.’s paths had first crossed five years earlier) that it was brought all the way uptown to LaGuardia Place. There, in the Theater at the Center for Architecture, it has now been held over until January 24, and perhaps longer.

The German and British aesthetic snobs are played by Sebastian Roche and Geoffrey Wade. The American professor who sponsors Margaret, is sweet on her, has slept with her, is played by Anthony Rapp. The LaGuardia Place director who has kept things hopping — all these conceptualizations and Margaret’s retaliatory anger — is Maria Mileaf.

“I’m not Chinese! I’m Korean?” the designer of the swimming pool more than once has to explode in the face of one or another sidewinding putdown from her interrogators.

And has this happened in real life?

“Yeah,” says M.J. Kang. “Once when Oren and I were in Montreal some guy said: ‘China doll’ to me. Oren was getting money out of a bank machine. I was upset. Oren went over to the guy and said: ‘Don’t call her Chinese.’ The guy said: ‘It’s a compliment.’

“But in fact things like that happened a lot of times, especially when I was growing up — and only knew about Korea from ‘M*A*S*H.’ “

Oren Safdie himself grew up in Montreal — more exactly, to age 2, and then from ages 10 to 19 — in and around Habitat, the Saint Lawrence riverside building-block apartment complex designed by his father, world-famous Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, as enduring crown of the 1967 Expo World’s Fair.

The younger Safdie himself, before he thought better of it and put his hand to playwriting, worked toward an MFA at Columbia University School of Architecture, and the swimming-pool model in this play is based on his own model for second-year finals.

The first draft of “Private Jokes, Public Places” was written some 10 years ago, and its Margaret was a white young woman, not Korean.

“When we met,” says Mrs. Oren Safdie, “he’d just had some bad reviews for a play called ‘Fiddler Sub-terrain,’ and then maybe six months after we were married, he found ‘Private Jokes’ in his computer. I asked him if there was a part in it for me. Oren wouldn’t write a part just for me. He said: ‘Let me try it out and see if it works’ — and he did try it out, and it did work.”

Let us now take the veil off M.J. Kang. She is Myung-Jin Kang, and Myung is Korean for “bright star” and Jin is Korean for “skylark,” both of which lovely appellations were graced on her by her grandfather at the time of her birth in Seoul. She won’t say when. “I’m in my 20s.” Arrived in Toronto at age 2, just like Margaret in the play. “And ran away from home at 17,” not like Margaret. “Dropped out.”

Her parents are Woo-suk Kang, a bank manager in Seoul, subsequently and to this day a realtor and owner of a variety store in Toronto; and Chun-Ja Sung Kang, a chemistry professor in Seoul, now a teacher of Origami and Korean language. Bright Star Skylark has two older sisters, one an accountant, the other in marketing.

Seventeen-year-old M.J. went from a Toronto hospice to “a job as an actor, actually,” as one of seven teenagers making up an anti-drug show for other teenagers. “We did it, one performance only, for the Tavishtown Festival in a very chi-chi and also very drug-infested section of Toronto.”

From there she got a part in “The Farm Show,” a 25-year-old play that anatomizes a community rather as did Moises Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project.” When a new play about gang life came along, director Paul Thompson told M.J. she looked too young and too sweet to be a gang member, but could she perhaps write some scenes for the collective that was doing the show.

She could and she did. So then, after some appearances in television, she started writing plays, seven of which have been produced to date, among them “Noran Bang,” or, in English, “The Yellow Room,” which premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille (pass through walls) when she was 18.

What’s it about? If M.J. Kang could giggle, she did now as she said: “A family from Korea. You know, autobiographical.” Also autobiographical was her “Blessing,” done on the main stage of Toronto’s Tarragon Theater — “a huge deal, like the Manhattan Theatre Club” — when M.J. was 22.

Five years ago, when she’d finished acting in a TV series in Canada, she headed for New York.

“I wanted more in life. I wanted to know what New York theater’s all about.”

She was interning for Pan-Asian Repertory in La MaMa’s rehearsal building on Great Jones Street when Oren Safdie’s highly irreverent “Jews and Jesus” was playing at La MaMa itself, on East 4th Street. A poet friend, David Rubinoff, who had won a $25,000 prize, happened to invite them both for dinner, and that’s how they met.

M.J. has been once to Korea, once to Israel, and gets along fine, she says — “he’s sweet, kind, helpful” — with Oren’s papa, who the other night took part in an after-the-show panel at his son’s play.

There comes a moment in “Private Jokes” when Margaret, to make a point about herself, and her inquisitors, and architecture, and reality, and womanhood, and independence, whips her clothes off, every stitch.

“Again,” says M.J. Kang, “when he was writing it, he didn’t know if I’d be in it or not. In that draft she just came down to her bra and underwear. But I said that in order to make a good impact and her journey complete, it has to go all the way.”

Le Corbusier couldn’t have put it better.