The title “Private” may seem vague.
In this West Coast premiere, playwright Mona Pirnot uses the word to encompass her three-pronged play that’s at once funny, intimate and of-the-zeitgeist, billed by its producer San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (SFBATCO) as “a searing exploration of personal privacy in the age of digital technology.”
But as it turns out, the first half or even two-thirds of the one-act, 75-minute play is basically one long red herring. There is indeed a “searing exploration” toward the end.
The issue of personal privacy in a world where even your Alexa seems to be eavesdropping is merely the extraneous catalyst propelling a truly rich encounter between two life partners that’s reminiscent of the deeper two-person scenes in Ingmar Bergman movies.
Georgia (Aidaa Peerzada, the understudy stepping in at the last minute and doing a terrific job as a tough and troubled young woman) and Corbin (a touchingly vulnerable Sedrick Cabrera) are struggling along financially. She’d like to pursue a musical career but both of them need to work to make ends meet. When he is offered a job as a product engineer at a startup at a very high salary, it seems their worries are over.
But what Corbin confesses to Georgia, with much trepidation, is that this new startup requires 24/7 digital surveillance over all its employees. He doesn’t see the problem with that, but as he expects, she explodes. A compromise is reached. He promises to approach his prospective employer and demand concessions.
What Georgia doesn’t know is that eager-to-please Corbin has already accepted the job. There’s no room for negotiating with, or even getting to meet, the all-powerful CEO.
In a comical scene on Corbin’s first day in the new job, he hesitantly queries the boss’ robotically perky assistant, Abbey (Risa Ferrer, cartoony but very funny), about the possibility of negotiating with the boss over the surveillance protocol, and his anxiety is palpable. (In another comical scene at a party for employees and their spouses, Georgia is cornered at the hors d’oeuvres table by a drunk, motor-mouthed Abbey, and, as before, Ferrer is hilarious, but the scene jars with the realism of Georgia and Corbin’s relationship, the core of the play.)
When Georgia confesses to a friend (a wonderfully sardonic Adam Maggio) her long-festering unhappiness with her life — and that life includes Corbin — it’s clear things are going to spiral out of control. Corbin’s a pushover, a yes man, but Georgia claims she’d take a pushover over a liar any day.
Of course, we know that Corbin has indeed been lying to her. Unbeknownst to her, the surveillance is ongoing and pervasive. It’s when Georgia discovers the ruse that the play suddenly leaves the issue of company-mandated privacy-invasion behind and turns to the ways partners can hide from each other, cover up their deepest feelings.
The writing here is so strong that it more than makes up for some scenes of repetitive bickering early on, and for the distraction of the start-up’s surveillance protocol and for the scenes involving Abby that seem to belong to a very different play.
Tonal issues aside, Pirnot’s dialogue feels emotionally authentic, and the direction by Peter J. Kuo — the way he stages the action so gracefully in the tiny playing area and encourages such achingly personalized performances from Peerzada and Cabrera—make the word “private” meaningful in a new way.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company’s “Private” continues through April 2 at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$40. Call (415) 484-8566 or visit sfbatco.org.