The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, is a futuristic techno-thriller that’s firmly situated amid present-day concerns about violent games and online malfeasance and rooted in a form established years ago, that of the police procedural. In a time when the natural world has gone gray and gloomy and people largely occupy themselves online, Detective Morris (Merritt Wever) is interrogating a man named Sims (Frank Wood), who’s suspected of solicitation, murder, and more in the virtual-reality realm that he operates. Once we see the Hideaway, as it’s called, the allure is obvious: it’s a nostalgic piece of Victoriana alive with colors and sounds (a gramophone plays in one scene), tastes and scents, to which nature itself seems to have retreated—there’s a garden, symbolic of course, with a stand of poplars, which hardly exist in the real world anymore. Yet the Hideaway’s purpose strikes us as repellent, for Sims is making it possible for men to visit, dally with, and eventually dismember pretty little girls in doll-like dresses. An ax makes its presence known fairly early, and we know what Chekhov said about a weapon that appears in a tale.
Morris sends an undercover agent, the young and handsome Woodnut (Ben Rosenfield), into the Hideaway. She dragnets Doyle (Peter Friedman), known to be connected somehow with Sims’s realm, who would look professorially harmless if it weren’t for the overcoat. We become well acquainted with the florally named Iris (Sophia Anne Caruso), the latest in the Hideaway’s succession of pretty little girls, who nonchalantly bites into an apple at one point. As for a certain important thing that happens to her—which is only reported—you may realize that it’s what typically happens in a game (to use the lingo, she’s a player, not an NPC), or you may find yourself recalling moments of unsettling strangeness, involving the woman named Hari, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film version of Solaris. Everything in this play is done deftly, either by direct statement or, more often, through potent implication (listen for a second reference to a teaching award and see if it’s not accompanied by a jolt or gasp); almost everything is turned upside down. And it all happens quickly, over the course of 85 minutes, with no intermission.
For MCC Theater’s production, director Anne Kaufmann has established a fairly brisk but careful pace, on a set design by Laura Jellinek that reveals depths within a somewhat limited stage space. Jellinek’s scenery, Jessica Pabst’s costume design, and Ben Stanton’s lighting take good advantage of the play’s vivid-versus-drab, color-versus-monochrome polarities. The performances of both the women leave a little to be desired. As Iris, Caruso radiates youth and eagerness but often sounds too chirpy; Wever also tends to be vocally unclear, and in her rendering Morris comes off as somewhat squishy, where one expects a threatening note of the inquisitorial instead. But the cast is basically solid.
Jennifer Haley’s script is the real star, though. It subtly subverts the traditional detective story. It has intriguing moral and philosophical dimensions (as noted by an FT review of another production and in my own commentary here). In questioning the import of simulated realms, it resonates with a range of recent hot topics such as affairs in the online world of Second Life (which, though not trendy anymore, still exists) and an airport massacre in one release of the Call of Duty game that was seemingly echoed in an attack on a real Russian airport. It’s valuable simply for clearing the air. Whereas pop-tech talk once trumpeted the notion of “immersive” websites and more recently has abounded in claims of “virtual reality” goggles, Haley shows us, with her depiction of the Hideaway, what it would really mean to be immersed in a synthetic world: it would be a genuinely embodied experience, where one could catch a scent in the air, hear a breeze rustle through leaves, even (though I questioned this) become intoxicated by cognac. I hesitate ever to use superlatives—they create expectations that may not be met for others—but for me The Nether deserves to be called breathtaking.
Its MCC run ends today. It has already been presented in Los Angeles, where it premiered, and in three iterations of the same production in London (the West End version continues through April 25). By all rights, The Nether will be seen and discussed elsewhere.