We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Mona Pirnot‘s Private takes place in a near-future world where digital devices don’t just record our movements, purchases, and social media. They record everything we say and do. Consequently, consumers purchase privacy policies. A bad policy is easily compromised and can lead to humiliations, such as the teacher whose student uses a recording of her orgasm as a ringtone.
The new policy is said to be excellent, but there’s a catch. To safeguard against corporate espionage, Raina’s company reserves the right to monitor everything. This is the price of entry to the startup world. Georgia isn’t on board, so Corbin goes to Raina’s “eyes and ears,” Abbey (Sophie Schulman), to negotiate a spousal carve out. Abbey insists monitoring is non-negotiable, but they decide that if Corbin remains a loyal employee, then what Georgia doesn’t know won’t hurt her.
Georgia, who had been considering leaving Corbin, instead quits her job and enlists Jordan (Ben Katz) to help her record her album.
Scenic designer Luciana Stecconi places this reality in a long but narrow retro-futurist box, in which the unadorned surfaces and right angles of post-WWII high-modernism have been covered with tactile sensuality of 1970s opulence—plush carpeting stretches wall to wall, floor to ceiling. The pile is a bright goldenrod, and under lighting by Masha Tsimring, it takes the hue of pink grapefruit. It’s not surprising that both Georgia and Jordan spend as much of their time barefoot as possible. Costume designer Danielle Preston keeps the ’70s vibe with Georgia’s bell bottoms, textured turtlenecks, and satin jackets, not to mention Jordan’s wide-collared tracksuit.
Director Knud Adams keeps the lights on during every scene change as actors simply walk on and off stage through a carpeted doorway. The audience uses dialogue to figure out whether we’re in a private apartment or startup world. And that’s the point.
Pirnot has a gift for dialogue. Her characters banter. Ideas ping back and forth in engaging digressions before they get to the emotional part of a scene. Sympathies might shift back and forth over the course of an exchange. Amay and Berryman bring out all the underlying anxieties of their characters’ marriage with nuance and take advantage of the script’s rhythms and silences. Schulman’s day-drinking Abbey is a neurotic mess caught between a desire to connect with people while also playing her assigned role in startup world.
But the technology at the center of the story is just a MacGuffin. Those expecting a Black Mirror-like nightmare about technology and society will be disappointed. Neither the technology nor its potential uses or abuses have any bearing on the plot. The bots tasked with monitoring never behave unexpectedly and never manifest after their first mention. The same premise could have played out if the concern were a personal email forwarded to a third party, TMI posted on social media, secrets revealed in face-to-face gossip, or a play too autobiographical for a partner’s tastes.
The conditions of Corbin’s contract never actually compromise the things Georgia wants to keep private, and Corbin doesn’t experience any complications that he could not have reasonably anticipated. Abbey, who disappears halfway through the play, never has to put down her drink and actively monitor Corbin. Jordan proves to be largely inconsequential as well. His only purpose is to describe what sounds like a parody of Karen Finley’s performance art. The major depressive episodes Georgia describes, and the undescribed bedroom kink the couple hints at, are never revealed. So while Pirnot proves she has mastered dialogue and characterization, she never pushes the speculative premise or her characters to their dramatic extreme. Privacy is never at stake. Private gives us a story that most can relate to, perhaps in uncomfortable ways, but this play is like a public beta that has been rushed to market without the advertised features.
Private, by Mona Pirnot and directed by Knud Adams is presented by Mosaic Theater and runs at Atlas Performing Arts Center until April 17. mosaictheater.org. $20-$60 in-person; $40 streaming.