Now that virtual reality has progressed from fantasy to multibillion-dollar industry, Jennifer Haley’s techno-chiller The Nether–now playing at Off Broadway’s Lucile Lortel Theatre through March 14–seems especially well-timed. Considering that it won the Susan Smith Blackburn playwriting prize three years ago, the conceptual crime tale seems particularly prescient in 2015.
“Eighty percent of the population work in office realms, children attend school in educational realms. There’s a realm for anything you want to know or do or think you might want to try,” brags Sims (Frank Wood), a gardener/Internet entrepreneur who’s cultivated a cozy, and presumably very lucrative, online social retreat for cognac-sipping, ax-wielding pedophiles. But one man’s consensual role-play is another’s obscenity—particularly in the eyes of Detective Morris (Merritt Wever), who’s on a mission to banish Sims’ secret gathering spot from cyberspace.
Haley sets up an intriguing case study. On one side, there’s Sims, who’s aware of his proclivities and therefore keeps himself away from real children. His realm, the Hideaway, provides people like him with an outlet for their inappropriate feelings. “It’s imagination! People should be free there,” he argues. And yet, intelligent, educated adults—like middle school teacher Cedric Doyle (Peter Friedman, at his broken, beaten-down best)—are going to the Hideaway to violate and murder children–horrific acts that raise startlingly real feelings and sensations, behind the safety and anonymity of an avatar and screen. “There is a line, even in our imagination,” she retorts. (The 2012 case of the NYPD’s “Cannibal Cop” springs to mind immediately, who was arrested—and later convicted—for planning to kidnap, cook, and consume several women. His guilty verdict was later overturned.)
As a debate, The Nether is pretty fascinating—a conversation-starter that should be relevant for years to come. As a thriller, it’s less than thrilling. Wever’s deadpan delivery, which serves her well as the no-nonsense quirky trauma nurse on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, sounds robotic on stage; she’s not believable as an investigator, and even less so as a threat to Sims, and her purported concern for the pitiable Mr. Doyle comes off as almost mocking. At least Wood is sufficiently creepy, particularly in Sims’ scenes opposite his beloved 9-year-old Iris (13-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso) in the gold-washed Hideaway.
The Nether does provide a few genuine chills—for instance, the sight of a grown man gazing adoringly at a 9-year-old girl cradled in his lap. (A teenager playing Iris helps greatly; no 9-year-old could handle the emotional weight of such a role.) Even scarier: The Hideaway—or something like it—must exist somewhere. As Sims says: “Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” Frightening. B-