Jennifer Haley's provocative The Nether, premiering at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is an unsettling thriller that gives the audience much to ponder. A cerebral work due to an emotionally distancing subject matter, it activates the mind more than the heart.
Haley sets the play in the near future, where internet activity has absorbed all of humanity's time and resources. People go to virtual schools, tend virtual gardens (since vegetation appears to be sparse in the real world) — and for those with abhorrent sexual proclivities, enact them in the safety of virtual brothels — far away from the dangers of hurting "real" people. The government fears and regulates what goes on in this Nether world. In a dank confession room, Investigator Morris (Jeanne Syquia) interrogates two men: an elderly customer (Dakin Matthews), and the creator of the code (Robert Joy) — both of whom are involved in a pedophilic virtual room.
Haley has written troubled, anti-heroic characters, including a pedophile who argues that the room gives people like him — who are in danger of harming real children — a chance to explore this side in the safety of a simulated world where no children are involved. The police take a moralistic view that even the fantasies are repugnant and should be stopped. The audience, however, is left to deliberate the fates of people who frighten the sensibilities in a brave new world not far removed from 2013. Haley uses pedophilia as an extreme case, but at stake is something universal in a world where the term "Catfish" has become synonymous with those who pretend to be others on the internet to entrap people. If both participants are willing and of consenting age, is the fantasy still healthy for society?
Director Neel Keller keeps audiences compelled by the arguments even when the characters' appetites are squeamish. He's armed with a talented cast who flesh out Haley's characters. Adolescent Brighid Fleming is the emotional center of the story as Iris, a virtual girl upon whom men project their sexual desires in a fantasy world. Because Fleming must portray not only the avatar — a curly-haired nymphet who bewitches men — but also the adult player controlling Iris' actions — it's an intricate performance, handled sensitively by a haunting young actress.
As Morris, Syquia at first seems stiff, but as her character's façade crumbles, it becomes blatant that rigidity was merely a defense mechanism. Syquia later erupts in a stream of frustration and tears when we learn her character is more personally susceptible to the dramas in the Netherworld than she first admitted. Matthews adds pathos as the man broken by the interrogation. Adam Haas Hunter, as a gentleman caller exploring Iris' fantasy world, becomes the audience's proxy, only to betray their identification by slipping into the perverse world. Joy compellingly lays out the author's arguments so that the audience doesn't automatically dismiss him due to his nature.
Adrian W. Jones' set surprises, transforming from a tight claustrophobic interrogation room to a fairy-tale Victorian manse calling to mind a large enchanted dollhouse. Lighting designer Christopher Kuhl achieves an eerie Edgar Allen Poe mood with stark lighting and horrific shadows in a violent moment.
Tapping into the post-9/11 fears and discussion surrounding privacy and human rights, The Nether forces audiences to contemplate the consequences of these issues even in the most repellent cases.