'The Nether': Theater Review

Jenny Anderson
Frank Wood and Merritt Wever in 'The Nether'
This imaginative sci-fi thriller doesn't quite live up to its disturbing premise

Emmy-winner Merritt Wever stars in Jennifer Haley's drama depicting a dystopian society where people can act out their darkest fantasies online.

The opening scene of Jennifer Haley's new play is familiar from endless television police procedurals: a tough detective harshly interrogates a suspect who's a self-confessed pedophile. But there's something disturbingly different about the crimes being discussed. They haven't taken place in the real world, but rather a futuristic version of the Internet dubbed The Nether in which people seize the opportunity to act out their darkest fantasies. Receiving its New York premiere via off-Broadway's MCC Theater after acclaimed productions in Los Angeles and London, The Nether is a thought-provoking depiction of a dystopian future where heinous actions don't have consequences. Or do they?

The suspect being questioned by the tough-as-nails Morris (Merritt Wever, Emmy winner for Nurse Jackie) is Sims (Frank Wood), the inventor of a virtual Victorian-style inn dubbed "The Hideaway." There, guests, or more precisely their online avatars, are invited to molest a sweetly innocent young girl, Iris (Sophia Anne Caruso). Afterwards, they're free to murder her with a thoughtfully provided ax.

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Among the Hideaway's guests are middle-aged schoolteacher Doyle (Peter Friedman), who also becomes the subject of Morris' attention, and the younger Woodnut (Ben Rosefield), who seems reluctant to fully engage with the flirty Iris.

The play, which won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, is both an imaginative thriller and a thoughtful examination of the blurry line between fantasy and reality. Much of the latter takes the form of an impassioned debate between the detective and Sims, known as "Papa" when he enters his imaginary creation. Threatened with losing his access to The Nether, he passionately argues that if deprived of his fantastical excursions he'll be forced to act out his perverse proclivities in real life.

Fueled by caustic humor — "I did not build the crying function for this purpose," a frustrated Papa complains when confronted with an emotional Iris — and hard-to-refute arguments, such as when he informs the detective that "porn drives technology," the play doesn't quite fully succeed in immersing us in its own dark imagination. Its themes are stated a little too baldly, the visual design is drab, and director Anne Kauffman's staging is curiously slack, with the result that the work feels much longer than its 75-minute running time.

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But it certainly provides much food for thought, and its impact is greatly enhanced by the performances, with especially fine work by Wood, creepily compelling as the twisted cyber-entrepreneur; Friedman, who infuses Doyle with a haunting pathos; Wever, authoritative as the morally outraged detective; and 13-year-old Caruso, who handles the disturbing material with precocious elan.

Cast: Frank Wood, Merritt Wever, Peter Friedman, Sophia Anne Caruso, Ben Rosenfield
Playwright: Jennifer Haley
Director: Anne Kauffman
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music & sound designers: Daniel Kluger, Brandon Wolcott

Presented by MCC Theater