NEW YORK—Big Brother is watching. So is Google, Target, Amazon, iTunes, and just about every other group with a presence on the World Wide Web. That includes The Public Theater, home to James Graham’s topical and interactive work “Privacy.”
In present-day London, young Writer (Daniel Radcliffe) is trying to deal with the aftermath of an emotional breakup. Suffering from writer’s block and with no followers on his Facebook page, he’s planning to move to New York City, where his former love now resides.
He’s also so wedded to his iPhone that he routinely stops whatever he’s doing whenever he receives an alert—even while in a session with his psychologist (Reg Rogers).
After the psychologist conjures up Writer’s parents (Rachel Dratch and Michael Countryman), talk turns to the internet and the vast amount of information there for the taking on literally every individual who deigns to explore with this technological marvel.
While many organizations send you ideas about items they hope you will buy after they’ve analyzed data gleaned from previous purchases you’ve made (or at least looked at) when scrolling through their sites, were you aware of how much more they may know about you?
“Privacy” involves the audience in exploring this question. By requesting everyone with a smartphone, tablet, or other such device to keep it on, various characters, most of whom play multiple roles, instruct the audience on a number of applications. Then they explain just how much data the places one visits virtually, as well as on the television sets at home, can collect.
This information can quite legally be sold to other companies thanks to the sites’ specific terms of services agreed to when first visiting. Some of these contracts are actually longer than the entire text of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
The show also makes clear—thanks to this often open flow of information—how easy it is to become an online stalker. The point is played both for laughs via a series of dates Writer goes on, and later much more seriously when he tries to unlock his ex’s cellphone.
The latter scenario leads to a discussion of 9/11 and the Patriot Act, with Rogers doing an absolutely chilling turn as a government agent conducting an interrogation for the flimsiest of reasons.
There is also a discussion about privacy laws or lack thereof in the United States and Britain, which leads to comments about the recent “Brexit” and the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
Unfortunately, with so many avenues to choose from, “Privacy” is never clear about its ultimate message: Is it a warning about identity theft? A doomsday scenario where giving up all aspects of privacy can lead to massive violations of civil rights? A parody of what happens to those so obsessed by the ease of having everything taken care of with the click of a virtual button that they become hoarders or shut-ins?
Or is it simply one man’s journey of self-discovery?
To its credit, the show takes great pains to examine the pros and cons of these different issues. How great it is, for example, to be able to share a selfie with the rest of the world. Though when you’re coming into New York for the first time, it might be nice to simply enjoy the moment rather than trying to position everyone in your car for that seemingly all-important shot.
These points are explained by different characters ranging from journalists and politicians to businessmen and members of the intelligence community. But after a few of these examples, the work starts to feel repetitious, with what could be a strong 90-minute tale bloated by close to an hour of excess.
More telling is the fact that we never really get to know just who Writer is. Conceived as an everyman figure, Radcliffe is certainly amiable enough in the role, but there is almost no substance to the character. As such, it’s hard to root for someone you really don’t know.
The lack of depth translates to the other characters in the show, though all do excellent jobs with what they have to work with. Rogers and Dratch, in particular, are the standouts in the cast.
Graham and director Josie Rourke, both of whom are billed as the show’s creators, seem intent on making the technological elements the star. In that, they totally succeed, thanks to some brilliant design elements and projections by Duncan McLean, which allow even the most technologically illiterate to follow the story.
Yet having the audience become active participants does not make up for the missing human element. Its lack ultimately makes “Privacy” just as ethereal as the numerous electronic trails and tendrils it describes—ones clearly present but almost impossible to latch onto.
Also in the cast are De’Adre Aziza and Raffi Barsoumian.
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or PublicTheater.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Aug. 14
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk and reviewer for stagebuzz.com