The Nether: Theater Review
A police procedural turns to the digital concerns of the future at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Sims (Robert Joy), a suspect in an interrogation room, is grilled and browbeaten with questionable tactics by young detective Morris (Jeanne Syquia). He is not yet charged, though the accusations range from child sexual abuse to murder, and his body is free to leave, although his access privileges to personally log in to “The Nether” would be terminated, a punishment of banishment to the real world. Sims admits to pedophile urges, but rather than commit criminal acts he has instead created a virtual world of quaint Victorian virtues, The Hideaway, in which forbidden experiences can be imagined rather than enacted, a service to society and individual satisfaction that has proved to be a lucrative business. Morris is determined to force him to reveal the location of his server and shut the operation down.
Jennifer Haley plays with familiar tropes from nightly television procedurals, yet her discourse offers fresh ideas and clever paradoxes. Sims has all the best arguments and defenses, and his articulation of the causes of freedom of thought and principles of responsible fantasy in a technological future is far more persuasive than Morris’ prosecutorial zeal and censorious disdain for the value of “harmless” liberty. Yet as the audience comes to share the experience of The Hideaway on The Nether, through a simple but mind-blowing change of set (imaginatively wrought by Adrian W. Jones), its eerily literary complacency oozes an ineffably disquieting creepiness, even as Morris’ own motives and prejudices grow more compromising. Sims plays the classic role of a polite pimp to his gracious johns and a loving “Pappa” to his psychologically needy virtual 9-year-old girls. At each twist of scruple, though, the production takes great care to ensure that we never forget that everything distasteful is nevertheless only happening within the mind, unless one crosses over to accept the virtual world as more real than the physical one.
What elevates the play far beyond the realm of a superlatively up-to-date episode of The Twilight Zone is that its concerns run deeper than ethical lessons for a time when connections are less between people than circuits. Just as Rod Serling would elicit the parable from his fabulations, though in ways he could never have conceived, Haley embeds a rather scathing critique of male aggression and exploitation and a quite au courant wrinkle of fluid gender identity, in which male and female can role play interchangeably and along a spectrum, and where there are no categorical limits on the imaginative capacity to regard and project one’s sexuality as the expressive of one’s most authentic self. Haley doesn’t take sides, finding devastating consequences both to Morris’ rectitude and Sims’ rationalizing.
Every performance under Neel Keller’s intense yet supple direction conveys extraordinary force. Joy has been an actor of noteworthy talent ever since his 1981 film debut in Atlantic City, and Syquia, a youthful veteran of so many of the best local companies, may have a breakout star-making part here. The reliably brilliant Dakin Matthews plays a schoolteacher made obsolete by online learning who is a suspicious witness, possibly a victimizer and victim both, a figure of overweening pathos made astringent by the actor’s tasteful economy of expression. In difficult parts as fantasy figures on the virtual site, Adam Haas Hunter as an undercover investigator and Brighid Fleming as the perpetually resurrecting and never-aging Iris maintain their poise as they follow the rules of the house while suggesting tumultuous inner lives belied by their decorous behavior.
All in all, this powerfully rendered speculation on the future grapples forcefully with issues that are central to our social experience today in a tense and stimulating entertainment.
Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (runs through April 14)
Cast: Robert Joy, Jeanne Syquia, Dakin Matthews, Adam Haas Hunter, Brighid Fleming
Director: Neel Keller
Playwright: Jennifer Haley
Set designer: Adrian W. Jones
Costume designer: Alex Jaeger
Lighting designer: Christopher Kuhl
Sound designer: John Zalewski