August 6, 2016

"Privacy Takes Interactivty to Another Level

The hottest ticket of the summer is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which opened at London's Palace Theatre last weekend and is already sold out through next May. But on this side of the Atlantic, the summer's hottest ticket (beside Hamilton) is Privacy, which coincidentally stars Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who played Harry Potter in the eight movies made from the British writer JK Rowling's books about a boy wizard who saves the world from evil.

The demand for tickets to Privacy, which ends its short run at The Public Theater next weekend, was so fierce that my theatergoing buddy Bill and I couldn't get seats until deep into the run. What we saw when we finally got there was less of a play than a staged TED Talk, complete with swanky audio visuals.

The evil being railed against in Privacy is the way in which internet providers, purveyors and the government gather information about us whenever we email, text, search, save or buy things. 

The rest of the show's thin plot involves an unnamed writer, presumably a stand-in for playwright James Graham, who tries to cure a case of writer's block and to reconnect with the boyfriend who ditched him because he was too introverted.

The writer's efforts to become more social, including conversations with his parents, shrink and a bunch of real-life media experts (ranging from MIT professor and privacy advocate Sherry Turkle to Oregon senator and internet defender Ron Wyden) play out inside his head and on his computer. 

They also appear on a giant screen at the back of the stage where photo avatars and basic info about the experts pop up whenever the actors portraying them show up. It's a clever and helpful device since just five cast members play more than three dozen roles. 

I've no complaints about those performances. Radcliffe is, as he's been in his previous times onstage (revivals of Equus, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Cripple of Inishmaan,) totally charming (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Meanwhile, under Josie Rourke's inventive staging, old hands like Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch and Reg Rogers deftly whirl though characters and accents faster than you can say WikiLeaks. 

Even NSA leaker Edward Snowden's much-hyped video cameo betrays little of the self-conscious stiffness that mars so many amateur performances (click here to read how it was achieved).

Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was in a Media Studies class taught by a professor more eager to make his students like him than to teach them anything new. 

A hip-looking guy in a cool suit stands at the back of the stage mysteriously typing away on a computer throughout the two-and-a-half-hour performance. Electro-pop music plays between the scenes. And portions of the Playbill have been blacked out as though redacted by some government censor.

Then there's the audience participation. Instead of the usual reminder to "turn off your cellphone" that is made at the beginning of most theater performances, a taped message from the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis asks audience members to turn on their phones and instructs them how to connect to the special Wi-Fi that has been set up for the production.

At various times, Radcliffe or one of the other actors ask the audience to do different tasks with their phones and folks eagerly complied, although a few seated near me couldn't resist also checking their emails, flipping through their photos and, despite the vigilance of the ushers, trying to snap photos of the show.

One woman forgot to mute her phone and so it rang at, of course, an inopportune moment. Still, this is the kind of immersive theater that particularly appeals to millennials and their fellow travelers and so most people didn't seem to be as annoyed as I was.

Privacy originated at London's Donmar Warehouse, but its text, which is based largely on interviews with the experts cited in the play and delivered in long soliloquies, has been totally revised to include New York City references and allusions to the latest events, from Brexit to the U.S. presidential campaign.

The message in both versions is that nothing is private or secret. But if you're the kind of person who really worries about that kind of thing, the show doesn't really have anything more to say than you've already known for a longtime (click here to listen to a terrific NPR report from two years ago).

It does, however, have a few secrets of its own. Audience members are asked not to spoil them. In fact, Radcliffe interrupts the curtain call applause to make a final appeal with a tongue-in-cheek reminder that the Public knows where everyone lives because it's downloaded the information from the cellphones they kept on. 

Which may be why I opted to leave mine off. Although that probably didn't protect me since I bought my tickets online.

No comments: