In playwright Jennifer Haley’s cleverly imagined, disturbing future — just a step or two ahead of our present — people lose themselves in a virtual world.
“Your login records indicate you spend a great deal of time online,” a detective says while interrogating a (craftily named) Mr. Sims.
“You have a lot of work on your hands if that’s become a crime,” Sims replies.
But is having sex with a young girl a crime; is hacking her to death with an axe a crime – if the young girl is no more than an avatar in the online world that Sims has created for himself and his paying guests?
“The Nether,” which is running for just two more weeks at MCC Theater, is also playing in Great Britain, where it has just been nominated for several Olivier Awards, including best new play. (It already won for the playwright the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize) In the first-rate production in New York directed by Anne Kauffman with spot-on scenic design by Laura Jellinek and costumes by Jessica Pabst, scenes in the dark interrogation room in the “offline” world alternate with the alluring world that Sims has created, which he calls The Hideaway. It is meant to resemble the most charming aspects of the Victorian era.
Unlike the current virtual world, the Nether (which is the future’s name for the Internet), involves all the senses, including taste and touch. What makes the online world even more attractive are the hints in the play of how unappealing the offline world has become – there are few real trees left, and schooling has moved entirely online.
The “opportunity to live outside of consequence,” as Sims puts it, has caused some people to “cross over” to become “permanent shades” – living life online, their offline bodies close to literally lifeless.
“The Nether” offers loud echoes of our present-day (virtual) reality, reminding us of such hot debates as the one about violent video games or pornography: Are they harmless fun that keep people’s antisocial proclivities within the realm of the imagination, or do they promote those proclivities?
“Did you know porn drives technology?” Sims argues with the detective. “The first photographs? Porn. The first movies? Porn. The most popular content when the Nether was called the Internet? Porn….The urge – as long as we are sentient, you will never stamp that out.” So why not…redirect it?
As intriguing as the questions that Haley raises, the cast keeps us rooted to the particular characters and their story, which feels like a mystery, and packs some surprises. The 13-year-old actress Sophia Anne Caruso is perfection as the nine-year-old Iris, who fulfills the sexual, romantic and murderous fantasies of the “guests” of The Hideaway, such as Woodnut portrayed by Ben Rosenfield. (Nothing horrendous is explicitly depicted on stage.) Peter Friedman, who never seems to strike a wrong note in any play in which he appears, is also exactly right as the elderly man who is, in fact, “Iris.”
Merritt Wever, who normally plays the detective, was injured before the performance I attended. The role was undertaken by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who has been fabulous in such plays as Grand Concourse and Mr. Burns, but was on book without sufficient notice to prepare.
The always effective Frank Wood plays the unapologetic Sims, who when in The Hideaway is simply Papa – but he is the only virtual character whose avatar looks like his actual identity.
“Is it my problem the real world no longer measures up?” Sims says defensively to the detective at one point.
“I would say it’s all of our problem,” the detective replies.
MCC at Lucille Lortel Theater
By Jennifer Haley; directed by Anne Kauffman; sets by Laura Jellinek; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Ben Stanton; music and sound by Daniel Kluger and Brandon Wolcott; production manager, B. D. White; production stage manager, Vanessa Coakley; general manager, Pamela Adams. Cast: Sophia Anne Caruso (Iris), Peter Friedman (Doyle), Ben Rosenfield (Woodnut), Merritt Wever (Morris) and Frank Wood (Sims/Papa).
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.
The Nether is scheduled to run through March 29.