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The Nether

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Frank Wood and Merritt Wever
Photo by Jenny Anderson

How you behave when no one can see you is frequently cited as the ultimate definition of character. But who are you, and what is your character, when you discover that your most private actions aren't so private after all? Such is the basis for The Nether, a tasty play by Jennifer Haley that MCC Theater is presenting at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, in which a handful of ostensibly ordinary people with extraordinary fixations must learn to better manage themselves and others once the truth is shone on them.

Employing a sense of all-consuming, just-past-the-boundaries-of-vision dread of the kind you typically find in Martin McDonagh plays (particularly echoing the authoritarianism of The Pillowman), Haley takes us to a world in the not-so-distant future when society has essentially been consumed by the "Nether." This is an invasive, super-Internet network that's populated by "realms," or elaborate VR sessions that tie in to all a person's senses and minds, and are so realistic that they've all but replaced traditional offices, schools, and... well, everything else.

That naturally includes anything and everything illicit, and the alleged manager of one of the most notorious of these, a man named Sims (Frank Wood), is under interrogation by a female detective named Morris (Merritt Wever) when the play begins. Sims is charged with running The Hideaway, where solicitation, rape, sodomy, and murder are traded regularly—with very young children.

Or are they? No one is exactly who he or she claims to be in the Nether, and the identity of the most tantalizing of the girls to be found in the Hideaway, the sprightly Iris (Sophia Anne Caruso), is a matter of constant debate. As is that of a young-ish man named Woodnut (Ben Rosenfield), who entered the Hideaway to discover whether charges against Sims (who goes by the name "Papa" when on the inside), and who did not emerge from the experience emotionally or spiritually unscathed. And what does Mr. Doyle (Peter Friedman), a middle-aged teacher with a particularly powerful attachment to Iris and devotion to Sims have to do with it?

Ben Rosenfield and Sophia Anne Caruso
Photo by Jenny Anderson

To reveal too much more would be to tarnish Haley's gleaming plotting and risk reducing the breath-stealing impact of this riveting technological thriller. Weaving in questions of sexuality, identity, and reality, along with even their more potent (and tangled) answers, Haley has concocted a masterful exploration of morality in the permanently connected age that thrives just as much on good-old-fashioned dramatic know-how (twists, turns, and terror—implied, but not shown) as it does on timeliness.

Director Anne Kauffman, staging things starkly on a dangerous-looking but surprisingly adaptable set by Laura Jellinek and beneath superbly unsettling lights by Ben Stanton, keeps the tension percolating constantly and the suspense at full throttle right up until the subtly horrifying finale. (The play runs a taut 75 minutes.) Haley and Kauffman are in near-perfect sync at crafting a universe where every word, every glance, and especially every log-in can be damning, and no one is safe from the fallout of their deepest desires and fears.

Most of the actors are outstanding at portraying the entry points into this corrosive digital world. Wood is remarkably likable, even vaguely innocent of mien, but also has a compelling undercurrent of sleaze that lets you easily view both halves of his complicated personality. Friedman beautifully negotiates the brilliance, desperation, and loss inherent in Doyle, and makes you feel for a man who's brought so many of his troubles on himself. Caruso is excellent, both playful and wise, in embodying a girl whose entire existence is little more than a layer of secrets. Rosenfield is solid as Woodnut, though the character is a bit underwritten (if for acceptable reasons). Only Wever strains to find depth, and makes Morris flatter than she should be, given how haphazardly she straddles the darkness and the light.

So much of The Nether is so good, in fact, that it seems churlish to dwell too much on the one thing it gets wrong: its originality, or rather lack thereof. If its topic is on the fresh side for the theatre, the specifics can't help but play as a bit old hat. The Nether premiered in Los Angeles two years ago, and because technology moves faster than just about anything, fact has lift this bit of fiction running to catch up. Virtual and augmented reality devices are so commonplace now, with everything from Google Glass to your smartphone having a say, that Haley's crisp, bludgeoning writing, through no fault of its own, can at times sound quaint. And you won't learn much, if anything, from the emotional or interpersonal dilemmas at the narrative's heart; falling in love with an illusion stored on some server has been done as well, and many times.

The degree of importance that has for you may determine your ultimate opinion of the evening as a whole; if up-to-the-minute newness is paramount, you're just not going to find that here. But if you're willing to set it aside in favor of nail-biting writing, some terrific acting, and a good dose of thoughtfulness about the state of how we interact with the world when we turn on our computers and turn off our better judgment, The Nether is a realm you'll absolutely want to lose yourself in.

The Nether
Through March 15
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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