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Privacy: Theater review by David Cote
When Mark Zuckerberg was recently photographed with his laptop camera and microphone jack covered in tape, complacent technophiles began to sweat. If the head of Facebook worries about personal security, what chance do the rest of us have? You may counter that vastly more people want to spy on Zuckerberg’s devices than yours. Not true: We are all hackworthy in the eyes of corporations, identity thieves and the government. Playwright James Graham and director Josie Rourke’s Privacy, a sardonic but disturbing survey of data mining and surveillance, makes clear that those miraculous toys in our back pockets may actually be playing us.
Privacy premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2014, and this revised version was created by Graham and Rourke by consulting dozens of tech experts, cultural theorists and even FBI officials. The piece is a fresh and engaging mélange of verbatim interview text, geektastic research and romantic comedy about a heartbroken writer (Daniel Radcliffe) who chases his ex to New York in the hopes of reconnecting. The irony is that our awkward, isolated scribe is far more connected than he realizes: His Xbox is face-scanning him while Amazon colonizes every square inch of his apartment. His life, like ours, dances to a crazy algorithm we can’t control.
More than a satire on narcissism in the age of the selfie or a limp morality tale about online anomie, Privacy gets the audience actively engaged in amusing, novel ways. We are told to keep our phones on and to connect to a Wi-Fi network at the Public Theater—through which we are encouraged to email selfies and other pictures from our photo library. Naturally, this material gets recycled ingeniously into the drama, as Radcliffe’s character goes on speed dates with “volunteers” from the audience (there’s as much acting magic as techno flash in the production.)
In his fourth New York stage gig since 2008, Radcliffe is more assured and funnier than ever, a bemused Everyman learning how to open up without losing his sense of identity. The supporting actors are marvelous: that jazzy blusterer Reg Rogers, the luminous and regal De’Adre Aziza, a reliably goofy Rachel Dratch and Michael Countryman juggling accents (English, Russian, Scottish). One character explains that a person’s entire digital footprint—emails, purchases, comments—can fit on a one-terabyte thumb drive. Seems like life ought to be bigger than that.—David Cote
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By James Graham. Directed by Josie Rourke. With De’Adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian, Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch, Daniel Radcliffe and Reg Rogers. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote