by Michael Bracken
The play’s the thing, but it’s not the only thing at the Public Theater, where James Graham’s Privacy opened Monday night. Fluidly directed by Josie Rourke (who is also credited with co-creating it with Graham), Privacy sometimes seems as much a lecture or a documentary as it is a play. But it’s not at all stuffy or academic. Quite the contrary. It’s an interactive foray (with plenty of humor) into a byproduct of the information age, the erosion of privacy. House lights keep coming up to allow for back- and-forths with the audience.
Privacy announces itself as being cut from a different cloth right from the start. Instead of being asked to turn their cell phones off, patrons are asked to turn or keep theirs on. They will be asked to use their mobile devices several times in the course of the two-and-a-half-hour show. Privacy is an information junkie, and the audience feeds its habit.
To the extent it has a plot, Privacy is about an introverted writer (Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame) seeing a therapist to help him recover from a romantic breakup. But the heart of Privacy is in its examination of how effortlessly information can be and is being harvested. Information we launch into cyberspace routinely gets gobbled up into databases governmental and/or corporate. Privacy shows up close and personal how accessible data is and how quickly it can be collected.
Playgoers, standing in for us all, unquestioningly provide information in real time, and the play, standing in for marketers and security wonks, devours it. The audience is asked to do things like email a selfie or a picture of their neighborhood to a given email address. The emailed photos are then shown on a screen onstage.
Privacy is a co-production of the Public and London’s Donmar Warehouse, where Rourke is artistic director and where the work was mounted in 2014. It’s been rewritten to give it a more American flavor, with British politicians replaced by their American counterparts. Radcliffe, however, keeps his British accent. There’s evidently more audience interaction than in the British version, which may or may not be a good thing. The fun and games with audience participation are very well done, but a little less might be a little more.
And then there’s Edward Snowden, who makes a pre-taped onscreen appearance from Russia near the end of the play. It only lasts a minute but the sight of the (famous to some, infamous to others) whistleblower is impactful.
Radcliffe, seen on Broadway three times, is making his off-Broadway debut. He easily carries the show. He’s casually likeable, which can also be said of the play itself. The cast, which includes Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch, is of a piece; everyone is in sync with Radcliffe and each other. Except for Radcliffe, who plays the single character around whom the piece revolves, actors play multiple roles. They play them quite well.
Sets by Lucy Osborne are fairly straightforward, modern with flair. The cloth-like screen center stage is adorned with a rectangular array of thumbprints at the top of the play. It subsequently hosts a rich variety of photos and videos, including something that looks like an airplane safety card. Projection design is by Duncan McLean.
It’s no secret that what we used to call privacy has gone the way of bell bottoms and 8 track tapes. If parts of Privacy state the obvious, so what? It’s also an eye opener. And the obvious bears repeating anyway.
Through August 14th. The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street www.publictheater.org – 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.
Photos: Joan Marcus