Wait! Do you really want to click on that Baby Pandas / Neo-Nazi / S&M website? British scribe James Graham and Donmar Warehouse artistic director Josie Rourke, who co-created the mind-bending theatrical experience they call “Privacy,” would like to enlighten you on how much personal data you surrender to governments and corporations (not to mention hackers) whenever you go on the web. Just buying your ticket to this show has given the Public Theater instant access to your whole life history.
Daniel Radcliffe, who’s made auspicious Broadway appearances in shows including “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “The Cripple of Inishman,” is enormously appealing as The Writer in this confounding play. After being dumped by his lover for being “emotionally unreachable,” this Everyman figure undertakes a painful journey of self-discovery. The irony is that every intimate detail about his private life that he’s been so carefully guarding is already out there — and everyone in the world has access to it.
No matter how digitally savvy you are, it’s impossible not to identify with this sweet schmuck as he stumbles through the vast world of the web to discover that there’s no such thing as privacy. That’s because both the playwright and his director, Rourke, have written the audience into the script — which doesn’t technically exist without our participation.
To draw us into this heavily interactive production, we’re encouraged to turn on our cell phones at the top of the show, and then offered the option to take selfies and post them to the Public Theater website. Those who go along are likely to find their faces projected (through the design wizardry of Duncan McLean) onto the giant screen that dominates Lucy Osborne’s coolly handsome set, with its ominous backdrop of row upon row of thumbprints.
As the Writer struggles to make sense of it all (Radcliffe is uncommonly skilled at playing bewilderment), audience members are asked to question their own relationships with the Internet. Prompted to check how Google auto-completes the query “Is it wrong to …,” our crowd responded with everything from “be gay” to “be French.” Harry Davies, the “research and digital associate” who sits onstage in front of a computer, illustrates all this on the spot and in real time, which is pretty amazing. Some people sitting in the house might even find themselves onstage, being interviewed by the Writer on whatever personal data Davies has managed to dig up on them.
Like the Writer, we might be surprised to learn how much personal data we send out into the world just by ordering pizza. But that’s not as shocking as the revelation that your supermarket might know you’re pregnant before you do. Nothing sinister about that, just a sophisticated tracking system that monitors even the subtlest deviations in your normal buying habits.
More than a dozen journalists, scholars, politicians, and entrepreneurs like Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg — all of them played by a multi-tasking backup cast that includes Michael Countryman, Reg Rogers and Rachel Dratch — weigh in with advice, instructions, and warnings to the floundering Writer. All these professional testimonies are delivered verbatim from interviews conducted with the subjects.
Dratch is especially persuasive as the M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle, who argues for the importance of solitude in our lives. “Without privacy, there can be no community,” she says. Others warn that the deterioration of human conversation could lead to the loss of all human connections, an irony noted by New York Law School’s Ari Ezra Waldman (Raffi Barsoumian) when he points out that the worldwide web was originally intended to bring us all together. Edward Snowden himself makes an appearance late in the game.
Over the course of this ever-surprising play, the Writer keeps learning how the Internet overrides what he thinks of as free will. He explores Google, LinkedIn, email, Twitter, Facebook and porn sites. He goes on dating sites. He gets hacked. He has his identity stolen. But in the end, he can’t answer the big question: Who owns your life?