A gripping and electric ‘Private’ astounds at Mosaic

It’s as if the playwright has scripted the subtext of every relational betrayal and said all the quiet parts out loud.

There came a point during the performance I attended of this grippingly crafted and deftly acted play when fraught silences between the two main characters were met by the stark stillness of a motionless audience holding its collective breath. That rapt attention — in swaths of quiet thick with tension — was an experience in theater unlike any I can recall. Partly we were hanging on these two people’s every word, caught up in their conflict, wondering who would speak next, what could possibly be said. And partly it was as if we were all of us privy to a trust rupture between them that was so private and personal we had no right to witness it.

Eric Berryman (he/him) as Corbin and Tẹmídayọ Amay (they/them) as Georgia in ‘Private.’ Photo by Chris Banks

Mona Pirnot’s play Private — now playing at Mosaic Theater and one of the most electrifying new works I have seen on any stage — parses the word private in two fascinating ways: In a macro sense, the play is set in a future saturated by so much surveillance that citizens must take out privacy insurance in the event their personal data gets leaked. In a micro sense, the play ruthlessly dissects what happens in a relationship between two once loving and loyal married thirtysomethings — he, Corbin, a product engineer, and she, Georgia, an aspiring musician — when a lie between them breaches the foundations of their relationship and a question erupts about how much personal privacy each should have from the other.

Here’s a peephole view of the abyss that opens between them.

GEORGIA: What else have you lied to me about?
CORBIN: Nothing. I,
GEORGIA: If you lied about this, you’ve lied about other things
CORBIN: I really haven’t
GEORGIA: You’re lying right now
CORBIN: I’m not. I can’t think of any/thing.
GEORGIA: How can I believe you now?
(Beat)
CORBIN: Georgia
GEORGIA: This isn’t who I thought you were
CORBIN: You know who I am
GEORGIA: Do I? I don’t know

It’s as if Pirnot has scripted the subtext of every relational betrayal and said all the quiet parts out loud.

The main two characters, whose dramatic arcs ensnare us, are played by two exquisitely well-matched actors: Georgia’s razor-sharp mind finds expression in a riveting performance by Tẹmídayọ Amay, and Eric Berryman wears Corbin’s earnest desire to please like a comfortable sweater. In the tight timing of their terse lines can be discerned an actors’ rapport that undergirds even their characters’ sharpest ripostes. The connected conviction in their scene work astounds the stage.

The dialog-rich action takes place on Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi’s spare set, a yellowish, soft-surfaced, nonspecific space that becomes by turns two apartments and a workplace. In the ceiling Lighting Designer Masha Tsimring positions fluorescents that signal location shifts. It all works seamlessly.

At the beginning, we are in Georgia and Corbin’s living room. Corbin, costumed by Danielle Preston in nerdy glasses and high-waisted trousers, arrives home having been offered a job in a startup that would mean twice as much income as they have now. The catch is that his employer would have to know and own their privacy — there would be algorithms literally listening in on everything. Georgia, whom we meet barefoot in waist-length braids and sleek, sylphlike loungewear, will have none of it. Their casual affection is apparent, but Georgia is adamant: Corbin must negotiate out of the privacy package or turn down the job.

Thus is set in motion a storyline that engrosses at every turn.

Sophie Schulman (she/her) as Abbey and Eric Berryman (he/him) as Corbin; Tẹmídayọ Amay (they/them) as Georgia and Ben Katz (he/him) as Jordan in ‘Private.’ Photos by Chris Banks

At the workplace where Corbin might get that job, he tries to cut a deal with the boss’s assistant, Abbey, a way around the privacy stipulation. Sophie Schulman captures Abbey’s chirpy chattiness exactly. Later we find Georgia in the apartment of her longtime friend Jordan, whom she asks for help in her music career. In the likable ease with which Ben Katz plays Jordan, it’s not hard to see why he may know Georgia better than Corbin does.

The spacious, nondescript set becomes marvelously metaphorical at times, as when Georgia cozies up in a corner, cornered, or when Georgia and Corbin are far left and far right as if kept apart by the chasm between them.

Eric Berryman (he/him) as Corbin and Tẹmídayọ Amay (they/them) as Georgia in ‘Private.’ Photo by Chris Banks

And the pacing and timing in this show are astonishing. It is a precise and complex score — from staccato crosstalk to a raging aria of a monologue to voids of silence so full of unspoken feeling it almost aches — and kudos for conducting it go to Director Knud Adams.

When Georgia and Corbin’s relationship is most tested, most distressed, she breaks a silence with a line that just blew my mind:

GEORGIA: I don’t know how to have this conversation or any conversation with you when we have an audience

Georgia means, of course, the surveillance system to which she and Corbin are inescapably subject. She knows there’s technology tracking every word they say and she does not want to be overheard. But the line also lands with us, the audience in the house, startling us into realizing what extraordinary intimacy we have been let in on.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Private runs in-person to April 17, 2022, presented by Mosaic Theater Company performing in the Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. Tickets for general admission are $68 each and can be purchased online or by calling 202-738-9491. Open-captioned performances are April 9 at 3 PM, April 9 at 8 PM, April 14 at 11 AM, and April 14 at 8 PM (includes ASL postshow).

Private also streams from April 6 to 17. Tickets for the virtual option are $40 for individuals and $70 for groups, available online. Viewers have 72 hours in which to watch the performance. Closed captions are available.

The Private program is online here.

COVID Safety: All patrons, visitors, and staff who visit the Atlas Performing Arts Center are required to provide proof of vaccination to be admitted into the venue. Face masks that cover the nose and mouth are required to be worn at all times regardless of vaccination status while inside the building. See Mosaic Theater Company’s complete COVID Safety policies and procedures.

SEE ALSO:
‘I want to give you goosebumps when you’re at Mosaic’: Reginald L. Douglas (interview by Ramona Harper)
Mosaic announces its next chapter with powerful 2022/23 lineup (season announcement)

Private
Written by Mona Pirnot
Directed by Knud Adams

Georgia: Tẹmídayọ Amay
Corbin: Eric Berryman
Jordan: Ben Katz
Abbey: Sophie Schulman

Scenic Designer: Luciana Stecconi
Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring
Costume Designer: Danielle Preston
Sound Designer: Kenny Neal
Props Designer: Deb Thomas
Stage Manager: Hope Villanueva

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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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