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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Given their length and the seriousness of the all too pertinent issues tackled, neither Oslo or Privacy probably doesn't strike you as the theatrical equivalent of a relaxing beach read. Yet, while both plays force us to face depressing realities about the elusiveness of peace and the darker aspects of technology, they reinforce the theater's ability to both entertain and provoke thought and discussion with a good story imaginatively staged and well performed. What distinguishes Privacy is the way it makes the audience part of the problems explored.
Playwright James Graham and director Josie Rourke certainly couldn't have wished for a better American home than the Public Theater for the show they initially presented at the Donmar Warehouse where Rourke is Artistic Director. The way they collaborated to turn Graham's play into a dynamic, audience involving show is a perfect fit with the Public's declared mission of insuring that their offerings are collaborations between theater maker and the audience. . . making them creators and not just spectators.
Wisely, Graham andRourke didn't just count on the accolades garnered by Privacy during its 2014 Donmar run. They've updated the script for American audiences and gathered a terrific group of actors headed by a box-office magnet — Daniel Radcliffe. But what made the British production unique remains intact. The cast still consists of six actors. They . are not listed in the program as specifically named characters but pop up in various guises to give voice to text gathered from the latest batch of interviews with American journalists, technology experts, politicians, psychologists and educators.
People interviewed and showing up on the Newman stage include Google CEO Erik Schmidt, psychologist-teacher-author and technology expert Sherry Turkle, Schol of Etiquette founder Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden If you can't identify everyone, no worries. Each time a new character appears, the busy back screen flashes on a "post it" telling us who they are.
Most importantly, the scuttling of the de rigueur "turn of your cell phones" request is also still very much part of the production. In fact, there's a cell phone charging machine at the entrance of the theater and the cell phone announcement is now expanded into a real scene with illustrated instructions for being actively connected on the back screen.. This amusingly imbues the heavy-duty problems implied by the title with a sense of fun.
The audience at the performance I attended (and probably at all others) clearly loved the chance to do what's usually frowned upon. Most of us are aware of the footprints we leave when we Google, shop on line, browse and text (but do it anyway), so it's hardly a big surprise that what follows turns practically the entire audience into witnesses confirming the wide-reaching effect that are the price of always being connected.
Radcliffe is the only cast member who plays just one role, a young writer. He's a charmer, even though his character is an emotional basket case who is so uncomfortable in a culture of intense intrusiveness that his relationship problems even include his parents (Michael Countryman and De 'Adre Aziza). Thus we see him visiting a psychologist, the first of several cameos by the always terrific Reg Rogers.
The story line about the writer's journey to the possibility of a successful romance — which includes a blind date full of unanticipated revelations — is interspersed with related verbatim style commentary and discussions by a succession of actors-cum-interviewees. A debate about the difference between secrecy and privacy has Google's Schmidt declaring people should treat Google (Countryman again) as if it were a "trusted friend." He dismisses any objections about lost secrets with "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Turkle gets a lively stage presence courtesy of Rachel Dratch. Raffi Barsoumian also brings several other opinionators to life.
The audience is kept in the loop. At one point they're asked to order a pizza on line, and take selfiies. There's also more direct interactive business that I can't reveal at the risk of being a spoiler. All I can say is that what starts out somewhat reminiscent of one of Dame Edna's shows, moves into both more nuanced and darker territory. Anyway, since the participatory elements of the show are impromptu (at least so it seems), there would be no point telling you what happened when I was there since no two performances are likely to be the same.
As for CIA analyst Edward Snowden, whose whistle blowing inspired Privacy, the show's creators did have a long-distance interview with him and the result is a conversation between Radcliffe's writer and Snowden on screen (see the picture and caption at te top of this review).
Harry Davies is the only non speaking onstage presence, as a digital researcher presumably gathering information from phone, Facebook, Amazon shopping records Speaking of Amazon, one of the most striking scenes visually takes us to the apartment in the East Village into which Radcliffe's Writer moves. He's surrounded by Amazon boxes stacked up to resemble New York's skyscrapers. (Bravo to scenic designer Lucy Osborne who also worked her magic on the London production, as did sound and projection designers, Lindsay Jones and Michael Bruce).
Fast paced, fun and provocative as all this is, the dating aspects of the production tend to come off as somewhat forced. Ultimately this is an overly ambitious attempt to tackle a big fat bundle of Internet related problems. The jokey business used to tease the audience into more serious-minded reflection, somehow doesn't work as well as it should.
Hopefully, this cell phone-friendly cautionary tale will make some people consider at least spending a little less time addictively texting and also do everything possible to safeguard their on-line activities. While I wouldn't think of giving up my ipad, Privacy did made me feel redeemed to have remained loyal to my very serviceable, but hacker-proof flip-phone.
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Created by James Graham & Josie Rourke
Written by James Graham
Directed by Josie Rourke
Cast: D'Adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian, Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch , Daniel Radcliffe, Reg Rogers
Scenic Design by Lucy Osborne
Costume Design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design by Richard Howell
Sound Design by Lindsay Jones
Projection Design by Duncan McLean
Original Music by Michael Bruce
Stage Managers: Brian Bogin and Patrick David Egan
Running Time: Approx 2 hours & 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Public Theater in a co-production with the Donmar Warehouse
From 7/02/16; opening 7/18/16; closing 8/14/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/16/16 press matinee
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