Pay no attention to the man behind the MacBook Pro. In truth, it is very easy to ignore the onstage presence of Harry Davies, the dangerously brilliant research and digital associate for the U.S. debut of James Graham's Privacy at the Public Theater (a co-production with London's Donmar Warehouse), but you really shouldn't: Davies spends much of this alarmingly astute show ensconced behind an upstage-left computer screen Googling us, pulling photos and bits of information from our social media to show the whole audience. What seems like an audacious breach of the unspoken boundaries between audience and performer turns out to be the best way to demonstrate just how porous the border between what is public and what is private has become in our digital age. And really, much of what is out there about us has been surrendered willingly, so why shoot the messenger?
Graham and director Josie Rourke (who is credited as co-creator) turn out to be particularly fearless and effective messengers when it comes to telling the story of our vulnerable data: What ostensibly starts as a fairly standard case of a writer putting himself in the story as a way to explore larger themes, blossoms into an unsettling exploration of the way these themes intimately touch each of our lives.
The story follows a neurotic British writer (Daniel Radcliffe) who journeys to America following a breakup: His American ex felt that he was too guarded in his feelings, so he decides to spend some time in New York City to see if he can remedy the situation. A series of (probably imaginary) encounters with academics like Sherry Turkle (Rachel Dratch), tech luminaries like Google's Eric Schmidt (Michael Countryman), and politicians like Senator Ron Wyden (Raffi Barsoumian) convince him that he may actually be more open about his most private thoughts than he even realizes. We all are!
Graham and Rourke acutely understand that it is better to show than tell, so the cast leads us through several demonstrations: Leaving our phones on through the show, we are asked to Google the phrase "Is it wrong" to see how Google tailors this question to our browsing history. We are shown where our iPhones keep a detailed record of our location. We even learn how some clothing retailers place microchips in our garments as a way to keep track of customers and their buying habits. All of this is perfectly legal, signed away with our willing (but perhaps unwitting consent): We regularly check in on dueling readings of Shakespeare's The Tempest and the latest iTunes terms and conditions to see which is longer.
Graham and Rourke's willingness to play with form to memorably convey content is enhanced by a cast that is more than game: Radcliffe embodies a character that is relatable and specific in his insecurities. Dratch is very funny in her interactions with the audience. Playing an intelligence officer, Reg Rogers easily shifts from humor to horror on a dime. With the exception of Radcliffe, everyone plays multiple roles with commitment and gusto.
Projection designer Duncan McLean helps us keep track of the constantly shifting dramatis personae by displaying the names, headshots, and fingerprints of the onstage characters on a giant upstage screen. For those of us with a bad memory for names, it comes as a massive relief, especially as we wonder if this is what the future will look like, after we all have Google Glass.
"It's not like you're going to give up the technology," the ACLU's Ujala Sehgal (a very wry De'Adre Aziza) says to Radcliffe's character when he questions the price in privacy of such modern conveniences. Truly, it seems that our expectations of a relatively private life are more likely to dissipate before there is a mass movement of secretive Luddites.
Privacy makes us feel this sobering reality in our guts. As our protagonist went on a series of blind dates with random audience members in which he revealed details of their lives culled from the Internet, I felt a mixture of pity and envy: Pity because these folks were being ambushed in front of an audience of strangers, envy because it wasn't my cat photos everyone was laughing at and "liking." Such ambivalence captures our current dilemma: Our desire for privacy has come in direct conflict with our narcissism. As Graham brutally shows, the latter seems to be winning at the moment.