By Tulis McCall
When the lights come up on Privacy at The Public Theater, nothing happens. And that is EXACTLY as it should be. Although the first scene includes Daniel Radcliffe (The Writer), whom most of us have witnessed growing up in front of us, no one claps. Because we are sophisticated, and we know that clapping for a celebrity is a big faux pas. Aren’t we the smart ones!!!
Maybe not so much….
That question comes boomeranging back at us within the first 20 minutes of this play as Reg Rogers (playing the first of his many roles) commands the lights up on the audience so that The Writer can see us. If he see us perhaps his phobia about being out in the world will be addressed. The writer, you see, has just broken up with his beau, and in the process has not only written an emotional email “I don’t know why I’m writing this…,” he has hit SEND and neglected to undo that command. He is a wreck looking for a shore on which to beach himself.
The Writer decides to pull up stakes and move to New York. The ex-beau is there and there is a chance that the relationship can be saved – he thinks. In addition, what better place to recreate yourself than in crowded, noisy, impartial New York? The Writer is much like Alice, and New York becomes his personal Wonderland. More or less.
On this cosmic journey he is visited by a series of current social-affairs illuminaries: Sherry Turkle from MIT, Ujala Sehgal from New York Civil Liberties Union, Michal Kosinski from Stanford, Ewen Macaskill from The Guardian, James Bamford from PBS – there are around 40 of them swirling effortlessly in and out of The Writer’s life. They are not there to help his broken heart. They are there to open his eyes to what is going on around him. And us.
We are gently coaxed into sharing this journey with The Writer, and we do. Lights come up and down. Phones are at the ready. We are like a schoolroom of first year college students who got the plum class with the cool professor.
Privacy could easily have been a lecture on the fact that there is no such thing anymore. That, however, while interesting, would not have reached in and touched us between the ears. James Graham and Josie Rourke have created what we used to call “A Happening”. Unlike Dionysus 69 no one gets naked or is groped by a cast member. But we are nonetheless involved.
The twists and turns of this production – and the cast is superb in every way – catch us off guard and profoundly shift our perception of our relationships to all the electronics, not to mention the people attached to them, to which we are devoted. So devoted we lose sight of what we are doing: Parents with their children look at their phones while the children figure out how to amuse themselves. People with dogs forgo the pleasure of being with this animal they have adopted and choose to scroll through texts instead. Chriporactors have waiting lists of people who have stepped into potholes or crashed into walls while on their smart phones. And lets’ not talk about the neck strain.
What does all of this devotion to an electronic device get us?
Pretty much nothing, except open. Open to anyone who has a mind to look. And they are looking. At where we travel; what we look at on the Internet; the state of our health; the success of our relationships. You could shout all this from the rooftops, of course. But then you would get lost in the babble. The way it is now, through your Smart Phone, you are being counted and assessed and evaluated without your having to lift one finger. A time saver indeed.
Edward Snowden may have been more whistle-blower than traitor.
Privacy – Created by James Graham and Josie Rourke; written by Mr. Graham; directed by Ms. Rourke; sets by Lucy Osborne; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Richard Howell; sound by Lindsay Jones; projections by Duncan McLean; music by Michael Bruce; research and digital associate, Harry Davies; production stage manager, Peter Wolf; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Maria Goyanes; general manager, Jeremy Adams; production executive, Ruth E. Sternberg. Presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director; and Donmar Warehouse, Ms. Rourke, artistic director; Kate Pakenham, executive producer. Through Aug. 14 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.