by Samuel Leiter
It’s a long way from the 1982 film Tron to Jennifer Haley’s play, The Nether, now being produced by the MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, but both do concern a world where it’s possible for human beings to enter computer systems and interact there with others. Tron deals with the world of video games and Haley’s play with virtual reality as experienced in a dystopian future via the Nether, the next step in the development of what we call the Internet. This dark, murky, and sometimes uncomfortable exploration of pedophiliac obsession—which premiered in Los Angeles in 2013, and is now playing on the West End—raises as many questions as it answers, but it has a mesmeric fascination that grabs you during its 80 intermissionless minutes and rarely lets you go.
According to the script’s citation of urbandictionary.com, the Nether is a world of mythical creatures, a demon world, or a dimension of evil or imagination. We’re introduced to it via an interrogation, held in a grim, black-bricked room by a young female investigator, Detective Morris (Merritt Wever of Nurse Jackie), who is questioning a gray-haired businessman, Sims (Frank Wood). Sims is tired and wants to go home to his wife. He insists, though, that he has no kids, lives in a brownstone, and that his wife is sterile, while Morris declares he lives in a Victorian country home, has four quaintly named children, one of them a girl named Iris, and that he faces charges of “Solicitation. Rape. Sodomy. Murder,” from which he’s made a lot of money. Still, Morris, who identifies herself as “an in-world representative” of a Nether investigative unit, says Sims is free to go, except that if he does he’ll never be able to use a computer terminal again. Since Sims’s business is tied up in the Nether, this is unacceptable. Making him even more worried is Morris’s threat to locate and detain his children, the ones he says he doesn’t have.
Somewhere in the Nether, you see, Sims, known there as “Papa,” has established an online realm of virtual reality roleplaying, complete with physical sensations, called the Hideaway where members enter and engage in pedophiliac relationships with children. Morris’s mission is to find Sims’s server and delete his realm. The children, who never grow old, are personas adopted by adult men, just as the members who visit them do so in the guise of Victorian-era men, their appearance chosen from “a set of prescribed looks.” The person who, in the guise of a handsome young man named Woodnut (Ben Rosenfield), enters Sims’s realm to investigate its activities establishes a friendship with a child named Iris (Sophia Anne Caruso), an Alice in Wonderland lookalike; before long we discover who Woodnut actually is.
Guests, we learn, are free even to murder their young friends multiple times with an ax, and sweet little Iris—the thought makes me shiver—has no compunctions about offering herself to Woodnut for this purpose. Some patrons find life in the Hideaway so compelling (“Real children are hard to come by these days,” says Sims) they “cross over” and dwell there permanently, which they do by becoming “shades,” sitting before their terminals while hooked up to life support systems.
Laura Jellinek’s brooding set, abetted by the spookily shifting lighting of Ben Stanton, allows for the intrusion of dream-world beauty when its upstage corners open to reveal Iris’s pink Victorian bedroom at one side or a gorgeous garden at the other. Jessica Pabst’s lovely Victorian costumes clash appropriately with the drab garments of the contemporary scenes. Veterans Wood and Friedman make their odd roles totally plausible, as does Rosenfield as the romantic lead, so to speak. Thirteen-year-old Caruso could not be better as the picture of tempting nine-year-old innocence, but Wever offers little depth to the curious detective.
Haley has crafted a nightmarish, sci-fi hall of mirrors; at the end, a scene we’ve observed in the Nether is repeated with the adorable sweetheart whose persona has been adopted by a balding, bearded man named Doyle (Peter Friedman)—a distinguished middle-school science teacher under investigation—played out with Doyle himself saying the words. It’s hard not to squirm at the vision.
The play, tightly directed by Anne Kauffman, raises some challenging questions touching on issues of reality versus non-reality, our preoccupation with online activity, the value of online censorship, the positive effects of acting out perversions via digital means, and the criminality of virtual behavior where no one is physically harmed. There are various wormholes of logic and plausibility to ponder; some may find they make the drama too far-fetched. Others, though, will surely consider The Nether intriguing enough to log on and see for themselves.
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street, NYC
Through March 15
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).