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‘The Encounter’ review: Headphones deliver unusual 3-D experience

Simon McBurney in

Simon McBurney in "The Encounter," an innovative theater event in which the audience wears headphones. Credit: Tristram Kenton

WHAT “The Encounter”

WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

INFO $59-$155; 212-239-6200; theencounterbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Brit import with innovative headphones promises an inner visceral journey, delivers a radio play with visuals

What’s that whispering behind my left ear? Why is that man seated over on the right making such a racket?

These are my first sensations at “The Encounter,” an innovative theater event in which we wear headphones to experience what might be considered 3-D sound. This is the latest invention from the celebrated British theater company Complicite and its co-founder/artistic director Simon McBurney.

Although the group has been a frequent visitor to the Lincoln Center Festival, this is only Complicite’s second Broadway excursion. Unlike the first one, a spin on Ionesco’s “The Chairs” in 1998, this is a solo conceived, directed and starring McBurney — and co-starring something called binaural technology. We watch the energetic and likable fellow both create the piece and act it out onstage with a table, mics and lots of water bottles. And we wear headphones.

It’s a solo, that is, unless you count all the headphone voices with the different accents, the late-night interruptions by his little girl in his London home, plus Amazonian jungle sounds, anthropological musings, mosquitoes, foreshadowing about exploitable oil, and very convincing rain.

“Encounter” arrives with a head-turning pile of five-star reviews from London. The website promises a visceral inner voyage, along with urgent questions about how we live and what we believe to be true.

I wish I could have been along on that particular voyage. Instead, no matter how serenely I tried to let the sounds in my headphones and the events onstage take me on a visceral inner journey, I couldn’t get beyond the sense I was hearing a radio play with plenty of sound effects and incidental visuals.

It is, I hasten to say, a compelling radio play. Inspired by “Amazon Beaming,” a 1991 novel that Petru Popescu wrote after meeting the real-life protagonist, National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, and hearing about his encounter with a virtually unknown tribe in the Brazilian rain forest.

The natives, who have had deadly experience with outsiders, somehow adopted McIntyre on their journey to “go back to the beginning” of time. First, of course, they take away his wristwatch and let monkeys destroy his camera.

Whatever else happens on Broadway this season, it is unlikely to be anything like these nonstop two hours. I’m sad that it felt to me like an engrossing, high-end novelty act.

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