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New York City Theater

Public Theater

So you think Halloween (the holiday and/or the movie) is scary. Try “Privacy,” the interactive play at the Public Theater, created by James Graham and Josie Rourke, written by Graham and directed by Rourke. Even without monsters or zombies it’s nightmarishly funny, seductive and challenging, requiring, nay demanding, audience collusion.

Lips must be sealed as to some of the tricks involved. But the outline can be shared. First, it helps if you have a smartphone which you’re asked to leave on. Communication between stage and audience is essential and surprising. Second, have at least a cursory familiarity with Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Third, know that, whatever the evening’s dramatic virtues, the dialogue is sprinkled with the kind of self-absorption that substitutes for communication.

Ostensibly it’s the story of The Writer (a nimble Daniel Radcliffe) who, deserted by his male lover, seeks other connections, male and female. In a series of sketches, punctuated by expert opinions of journalists and technology gurus (at one point whistle-blower Edward Snowden appears, via tape), we’re assaulted by sometimes hilarious, occasionally repetitive, always sobering warnings.

The plot is vague and the emotional level is minuscule. The real subject is our vulnerability and how we’ve all been bitten. Order pet food and you’re deluged forever by offers of kitty litter or dog treats. Seek a nearby restaurant and your location is pinpointed. Our phones and emails are windows into likes and dislikes. As “The Tempest” would have it, in this “brave new world,” we are but “actors, spirits melted into air, into thin air.” Is there an audience, somewhere, observing us?

Are we reaching out to others or imposing ourselves on the world? Do we expect answers to our musings?  Should we sacrifice privacy for safety? Serious questions, here embodied in a constantly lively work.

As chirpingly directed, the production (a co-presentation of the Public Theater and London’s Donmar Warehouse) has one foot in comedy, another in fear. The cast exploits this double image with a lighthearted air. De’Adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian, Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch and the antic Reg Rogers flow in and out of multiple characters.

“Privacy” benefits from Lucy Osborne’s hi-tech scenic design, Richard Howell’s lighting, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Lindsay Jones’ sound, Duncan McLean’s terrific projections, Michael Bruce’s original music and Harry Davies, listed as research and digital associate.

What it must have taken to devise and mount this work is seen in the program list of people interviewed and books consulted, a program that is, like the evening, both amusing and threatening. Some names and credits are redacted, reflecting technology’s treating us like redacted, non-human commodities. We all must be careful, very careful, and afraid, very afraid.

--David A. Rosenberg
August 8, 2016

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