Daniel Radcliffe in James Graham’s “Privacy,” directed by Josie Rourke, in a sold-out run at the Public Theater that could be extended beyond its August 14 end date. | JOAN MARCUS
There is no pre-show announcement at “Privacy” demanding the silencing of cell phones. In fact, they urge you to keep them switched on and to fiddle with them throughout the play.
Within minutes, it’s clear that this provocative appraisal of identity in the digital age, now enjoying a sold-out run at the Public Theater, should really be titled “Privacy Lost.” Because it cleverly illustrates how our dependency on smartphones and other technology means giving up highly intimate details, for better or for worse.
Not just to our so-called “friends” on Facebook and other social media, but also unwittingly to wily metadata brokers who harvest reams of intricate information from the digital trails you leave behind — what websites you visit, the posts and music you “like,” the photos you share, and where you shop, eat, and drink. This data, naturally, is then sold to pesky advertisers. The NSA and FBI have access, too.
What the hell, in the name of Edward Snowden, is going on?
It’s an increasingly precarious world we live in, and who better to help process our fears than an everyman played winningly by Daniel Radcliffe, sporting a scruffy beard and still retaining his impish Harry Potter charm. He stars as a lonely, heartbroken British playwright, referred to as “The Writer,” who visits a therapist to help sift through the aftermath of being dumped. Digital technology, so it seems, was at the root of the breakup.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as a lovelorn dweeb navigating relationships in the digital age
The play is annoyingly coy about the gender of the ex, though at one point The Writer admits that it’s a guy (he claims he’s attracted to girls too, as evidenced by an audience participation stunt in the second act, which I won’t spoil here).
Written by James Graham and co-produced with the Donmar Warehouse, this highly interactive piece allows audience members to learn firsthand, along with The Writer, about the joys and perils of “hyperlinking through life.” Striking the right balance between privacy and community is no easy feat.
A bespectacled young man, known as “The Researcher,” sits busy at a laptop upstage, presumably compiling personal info gleaned from audience members who have supplied their contact information when they bought their tickets online (you can opt out if you don’t want your info used during the play).
“Privacy” features a shaky narrative involving The Writer traveling to New York City to reboot his life — and perhaps stalk his ex in the hopes of getting back together — but it’s just an excuse to introduce an array of quirky characters such as his doting mother and experts drawn from real life, including Sherry Turkle (author and techno-sociologist at MIT), Eric Schmidt (billionaire Google executive), Christian Rudder (OkCupid founder), and James Comey (FBI director).
These personalities are portrayed with finesse by a versatile ensemble consisting of Rachel Dratch (of “Saturday Night Live” fame), De’Adre Aziza, Reg Rogers, Michael Countryman, and Raffi Barsoumian.
To help us keep track of who’s who, their names are projected on a vast backdrop screen, along with dozens of dizzying images (to divulge details would ruin the surprise).
At first The Writer is a bumbling Luddite, but gradually he learns how to take and share a like-inducing selfie and “curate a performance on Twitter.”
We already know, though rarely care to think about it, that the Cloud is not a happy fluffy place in the sky where our digital information lives, but a data center somewhere in the Midwest.
Is our self-esteem tied to how many likes we get after posting a status update? Is the security provided by ubiquitous surveillance cameras worth the sacrifice of personal privacy? Is it okay that certain televisions are now capable of watching us as intently as we watch them? Does it matter that advertisers and the FBI know that you visited PornHub 16 times last week? These are vital questions the play raises yet cannot possibly answer.
I admit, it was disconcerting knowing The Researcher might be rummaging through my personal data. Thankfully, he did not track down my Scruff photos and flash them onscreen. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he could have.
PRIVACY | The Newman Theater at the Public | Co-production with the Donmar Warehouse | 425 Lafayette St., btwn. E. Fourth St. & Astor Pl. | Through Aug. 14 (sold-out, but may be extended): Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $95 at publictheater.org | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission