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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 18, 2016

Daniel Radcliffe
Photo by Joan Marcus

Think ticket prices for Hamilton are scary? The Public Theater, which ushered that behemoth of a hit into the world last year, has now unleashed something even more terrifying: Privacy. This theatre piece created by James Graham (credited with the writing) and Josie Rourke (direction), is designed to scare the heck out of you if you fall into either of two categories: if you have a smartphone, or if you don't.

The darkest horrors Graham and Rourke unleash are aimed at the first group, admittedly, demonstrating how your iPhone, for example, uses wireless networks to keep track of where you walk and when you walk there, or that its camera collects invisible (and damning) information with every shot you snap, reinforcing with unsettling strength the notion most of us already have that our most trusted devices are never more than 30 seconds away from betraying us. But if you've ever used little services called Google or Facebook, you're no better off—the wrong people, or the right people with the wrong ideas about their rightness, can find out anything about you with just a few clicks of a mouse you're unlikely to ever get close enough to see.

Perhaps the most daring of all the conceits employed in this two-and-a-half-hour evening is the revelation (reminder?) that in 2016 even an old-fashioned theatre ticket is no guarantee of safety. Pony up your money on the website, and your name, address, and phone number become, for all intents and purposes, someone else's property. And once that happens, even your seat in the otherwise secure fortress of Lafayette Street is all but a pedestal put before a firing squad: Once you learn just how much a target you are, you're already dead.

Sorry for all the vagaries here, but to give too much away about what you give away—and how the creators of Privacy exploit it for your edification—would be to spoil most of the fun of this otherwise stilted and saggy enterprise. If you don't enjoy the surprises about each new way technology takes advantage of you, there's no way to fall back on such antiquated notions as "plot" and "characters"—because, for all intents and purposes, they don't really exist here.

The closest we get is a twentysomething man known only as The Writer (and played by Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame and several other notable New York stage credits). Devastated after a breakup, he takes to the pleather couch of a psychologist (Reg Rogers) in search of guidance, but is reluctant to tell too much lest he lose what little control over his life he has left. His quest to understand his place in an increasingly un-private world, whether it's stalking his ex via target searches or pondering sudden rapid heart rate over a Web-based fitness app, eventually sends him hurtling to New York, where he tries to start anew and reconnect with people on a level that's less invasive and less digital than any he's known in a while.

Daniel Radcliffe with Michael Countryman,
Raffi Barsoumian, and Reg Rogers
Photo by Joan Marcus

Or something. See, this is where the cleverness of Graham, Rourke, and their show incites an implosion: The Writer's attempts to make sense of his moldering situation manifest themselves as research into people who are exploring where the boundaries, if any, exist in our present-day existence. Some of these figures have familiar names, like Jim Sensenbrenner (Wisconsin representative), Ron Wyden (Oregon senator), Jill Abramson (from The New York Times), or Randi Zuckerberg (formerly a major mover and shaker at Facebook); others, such as Ramanathan V. Guha (a Google scientist), Eli Pariser (founder of Upworthy), Christian Rudder (president of matchmaking site OKCupid), and Sherry Turkle (an MIT professor) will likely be harder to place. But they all come to life for The Writer as played, variously and unpredictably, by the members of the company, who also include Rachel Dratch, Michael Countryman, Raffi Barsoumian, and de'Adre Aziza.

When they do, though, they don't contribute to the drama so much as they expand the writing's documentary focus, and given the sheer weight of their contribution to the play, they rapidly overwhelm and undermine any realism of or feelings we may develop for The Writer. They, like he, are symbols of life becoming more restricted and less personally accessible, and by rattling off fact after terrifying fact about products from Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and countless other companies, they spread fear as fully over one dimension as they can without ever providing it the emotional context information alone cannot provide.

Instead, the spiritual center seems to be onstage "Research and Digital Associate" Harry Davies, who appears to be controlling data retrieval and distribution from his upstage perch and who is forever at the middle of the gorgeous, swirling maelstrom of a physical production as devised by Lucy Osborne (the microchip-meets-punch-card set), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Richard Howell (the blazing lights), Lindsay Jones (the alternately chilling and hilarious sound), Michael Bruce (original music), and Duncan McLean (the seemingly sentient projections). The Writer should interpret, integrate, respond to, and grow from all this, but the silicon-lined pathways of thought interest Graham and Rourke more than flesh and blood detail, which causes the young man's quest to register as little more than shouting (really whining, loudly) at a wall.

This is not the fault of Radcliffe, who's a wonderfully affable actor, and has no trouble injecting his lines with the proper boy-next-door frustration. There's just nothing for him on to, so we can't be engaged any way other than intellectually. His costars, similarly fine, fare no better—Rogers and Dratch, improvisatory comedians of consummate skill, wring plenty of levity out of the audience torture, but can dig no deeper. All things considered, the star turn of the night comes from a charismatic, strangely pensive, and even poetic Edward Snowden (on video, of course) and the comic highlight is the pre-show speech, delivered by Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis in the style of an airplane's preflight announcement, advising you to fasten your seat belts and leave your phone on.

Any veteran audience member is going to be wary of that instruction, and for good reason—it seems as if it's a lot harder these days to get theatregoers to respect the others around them (including the performers) and turn their devices off. The point here, however, couldn't be made as potently without those screens glowing (though just occasionally), so it's worth doing. Rest assured, though: You will never think of your phone in quite the same way again afterward. Maybe that's all for the best; isn't an enemy harder to fight if we know what we're up against? Still, it's a shame that Privacy is structured only to touch our minds and not our hearts and our souls; if it were, we might be better armed to fight those unseen forces from the inside out rather than merely the outside in.

Through August 14
Public Theater's Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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