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Theatre in Review: Privacy (The Public Theater)

Photo: Joan Marcus

If you have ever dreamed of a date with Daniel Radcliffe, you should hop on down to the Public Theater, where he is starring in the singular entertainment known as Privacy. At one point in the second act, three members of the audience are brought up on stage and proffered as possible romantic partners for the character played by the star. The selection process is democratic, to say the least. Earlier in the evening, everyone in the audience has been invited to take a selfie of him or herself and email it to a Public Theater address. By the time the three candidates have taken the stage, Radcliffe has in his possession a detailed dossier of fun facts about each of them.

And that's the main point of James Graham's new play: Thanks to smartphones, social media, and the Internet, privacy -- once a deeply cherished entity -- has largely disappeared into the ether, leaving us all connected, whether we want to be or not. Not so much a play as a documentary filtered through a series of comic sketches, Privacy offers a rigorous examination of the thousand and one ways that we have unthinkingly surrendered the most intimate details of our lives to commercial and governmental interests. The result is undeniably entertaining, often uproariously funny. It's also a case of attempting to close the barn door long after the horse has escaped.

Radcliffe is The Writer, who, by virtue of being British, is congenitally incapable of opening up to others, a quality that has deep-sixed his current relationship. To give you an idea of the character's reticence, he repeatedly refers to his ex in the third-person-plural form ("they" or "them"), leaving us to guess the person's sex. (Not really a spoiler alert: The Writer is bisexual and he is mooning over a guy.) He consults a psychotherapist, and soon they are discussing social media -- at which The Writer is remarkably inept. In one of the play's more pathetic/hilarious moments, he reveals that his Twitter account has exactly one follower: his ex.

The Writer decides to try his luck in New York, described as "a city where nobody has inhibitions or boundaries." Along the way, his problems soon become fair game for a battery of real-life experts who invade the stage: New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, Clive Humby (inventor of the customer loyalty program), Eli Pariser (chairman of the website Upworthy), MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Facebook executive Randi Zuckerberg, Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick (founder of the Etiquette School of New York), Christian Rudder (founder of OkCupid), Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Senator Ron Wyden, among a great many others. Together, they serve to coach The Writer on his social skills while introducing him to the uses (and abuses) of social media technology. This gaggle of experts is impersonated by one of the nimbler and more amusing supporting casts in town, including De'Adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian, Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch, and Reg Rogers, each of them adept in the art of quickly changing personas, and each giving a lively, lucid hearing to his or her character's point of view.

The entire company consists of fast thinkers, and a good thing, too, because Privacy consists of a series of semi-improvised sketches, most of them featuring audience participation. The action is almost impossible to describe, not least because we in the press have been warned against spoiling the script's plentiful secrets and fakeouts. (For example, that dating sequence mentioned in the first paragraph is rigged, but I won't say how.) Privacy is already famous as the play in which audience members are invited to leave their cellphones on during the performance, something that might get you lynched at, say, Lincoln Center Theater. In the hilarious opening sequence, the Public's artistic director, Oskar Eustis, gets on the sound system to explain the evening's ground rules while we follow along, reading from a plastic instruction sheet that resembles those safety cards on airplanes. (Included is advice on how those tragic souls without smartphones can piggyback onto their neighbors'.) Later, we are invited to check out Google, take the selfies mentioned above, share photos from our Facebook albums, check out our driver ratings on Uber, and much more.

At the least, Privacy yields plenty of amusement, some of it scripted, some of it spontaneous. The audience is asked to type into Google the words, "Is it wrong to..." and to report what they find --which, of course, reveals something about the phone's owner. At the performance I attended, one patron shouted out that his phone came up with "Is it wrong to pick up girls in a dungeon?" (So much for his chances of making a love connection at the Public.) An Uber driver, noting the car service's elaborate reporting systems, muses that he was under less scrutiny back home in Russia. The Writer claims that his favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird, then gets busted when someone displays his Kindle list, which shows him as not having gotten past page 43. (He insists that he read it in hardcover, but how are we to know?) We get a true picture of The Writer's emotional state via his Spotify and iPod song lists, which amusingly consist of '80s-era slit-your-wrists ballads, including Lionel Richie's "Hello." (Adele's similarly titled ballad is trotted out, to laugh-getting effect.)

Gifted with a sharp sense of humor, a gamely engaging star, a talented supporting cast, and light-fingered, fast-paced direction by Josie Rourke (who conceived the project with Graham), Privacy is undoubtedly going to entertain a great many people. Whether it will enlighten them is another matter. The script is certainly vast in its reach, starting with the aforementioned Internet searches, cookies, and Facebook, proceeding through Internet dating, and ending up with FISA, the Patriot Act, and the Prism Program, the NSA system that scoops up Internet connections in search of terrorist activities. The show's late-in-the-day shift toward such sinister matters as government surveillance doesn't feel entirely earned, however; Privacy is much less entertaining when it slips into lecture mode.

And, anyway, is it really news that privacy as we once knew it basically no longer exists? Does anyone in the audience really need to be educated about the existence of cookies? Does someone who posts daily on Facebook need yet another warning that one is surrendering one's information and images to a corporation that is mining them for information to sell to advertisers? Given the celebrity of Edward Snowden, is anyone in the young and well-educated audience at the Public unaware of Prism and similar programs? To anyone who follows the news or has seen Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, these are yesterday's headlines. And, at two and a half hours, Privacy makes its points exhaustively, and exhaustingly.

Anyway, Radcliffe and company make good companions for an evening, and, as you would expect given the subject matter, the design is unusually sleek. Lucy Osborne's set is backed by a large hanging drop filled with indentations onto which are projected images of fingerprints, those indelible reminders of one's identity. Duncan McLean's expansive projection design includes screenshots of various websites and apps, videos of New York street scenes, and the eleventh-hour appearance of the show's mystery guest, whose name I dare not reveal. Richard Howell's skillful lighting design includes units built into the deck to provide uplighting on the set's walls and a vivid color-chase to accompany a video of fireworks. Paul Tazewell has dressed everyone attractively and comfortably. I don't fully understand why the actors are miked -- this seems to be happening more and more in the Public's Newman Theater -- but Lindsay Jones makes sure the reinforcement is pleasingly subtle. He also provides solid reinforcement for the above-mentioned pop tunes and the voices of Simon Callow and Harriet Walter, heard in a sequence noting the comparative lengths of iTunes' terms and conditions with the text of The Tempest. (It's a photo finish.)

Though it is designed to address what is probably the most transformative aspect of present-day life, Privacy nevertheless works better as a clever comedy of digital manners. And, who knows? If you make it to the stage, Daniel Radcliffe just might slip you his phone number. -- David Barbour


(25 July 2016)

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