Don’t be surprised if you have an irresistible urge to throw away your cell phone upon exiting Privacy, the play starring Daniel Radcliffe being presented at the Public Theater. A theatrical exploration of the insidious manner in which technology has invaded our lives and made every aspect of our existence accessible, the drama is not merely disquieting but scarily alarming. Its revelations would be even more unsettling if it weren’t so damn funny.
A co-production of the Public and London’s Donmar Warehouse (where it received its 2014 world premiere), James Graham’s play depicts the travails of a lovesick British man (Radcliffe), known as “The Writer,” who’s seriously depressed because his lover broke up with him and moved to New York City. He goes to see a psychiatrist, who encourages him to use social media to re-enter the dating world. He then decides to relocate to the Big Apple in the hopes of starting over and possibly winning back his ex.
That’s about it for the plot of this work co-created by Graham with director Josie Rourke. But the simple story is merely an excuse for an elaborate meditation on how we’ve willingly — and unknowingly — sacrificed our privacy in the pursuit of convenience and, as in the case of so much social media, narcissistic self-absorption.
Appearing in the play alongside such fictional characters as The Writer’s technologically unsophisticated parents, his friendly Manhattan neighbor and a Russian-accented Uber driver are a gallery of real-life experts providing commentary on 21st century technology. A mixture of politicians, academics, writers, sociologists and businessmen, they include such well-known figures as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt; MIT professor Sherry Turkle; New Yorker staff writer and Harvard professor Jill Lepore; Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, who broke the Edward Snowden story; OkCupid founder Christian Rudder, showing up to impart hilarious dating advice; and FBI director James Comey, who uses his recent experience to counsel The Writer on how to crack his ex’s iPhone, which he’s found in a diner. All are embodied by a virtuosic ensemble featuring De’Adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian, Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch and Reg Rogers.
The play’s cleverest aspect is the way it draws the audience into the action. Unlike at every other theater, we’re encouraged to leave on our cell phones (in silent mode) and keep them handy. After being given the password to the venue’s WiFi, we’re then prompted to do Google searches; given a lesson about “how to take the perfect selfie,” which we are asked to email to the production, and so on. Three lucky audience members are even recruited to come onstage and engage in a series of speed dates with Radcliffe, who displays a quick wit in the improvised interactions.
It’s soon made clear that in the process of simply using our phones we have unwittingly provided the production with huge amounts of personal information that is subsequently regurgitated, both to our horror and amusement. The most important person on the stage, it turns out, is not any of the actors but rather an unassuming fellow unwaveringly focused on the laptop in front of him. He’s Harry Davies, billed as the “Onstage Digital Researcher,” and if he’s not currently working for the NSA he probably will be soon.
The play is ultimately more informational than successfully dramatic, often having the feel of an intricate, celebrity-studded TED Talk. But it nonetheless emerges as a dazzlingly inventive and entertaining theatrical exercise that — judging by the tart dialogue concerning the recent Brexit vote and the upcoming presidential election — is elastic enough to be constantly updated.
Director Rourke (making her Broadway debut this fall with Les Liaisons Dangereuses) keeps the production’s complex technological balls up in the air with consummate skill, and the performers superbly rise to their many challenges. Radcliffe, who has exhibited an admirable desire to stretch his talents in his post-Harry Potter career, employs his natural charisma and likability to excellent effect here, with his hapless Everyman effectively standing in for audience reactions ranging from bemused to horrified. By the time the evening is over, you’ll be fully convinced that the new scariest word in the English language is “metadata.”
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: De’Adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian, Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch, Daniel Radcliffe, Reg Rogers
Playwright: James Graham
Creators: James Graham, Josie Rourke
Director: Josie Rourke
Set designer: Lucy Osborne
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Richard Howell
Sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Music: Michael Bruce
Projection designer: Duncan McLean
Presented by the Public Theater, Donmar Warehouse