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Jennifer Haley’s ingeniously creepy sci-fi drama The Nether could be an episode of the BBC hit Black Mirror. It’s set in a dystopian future where trees are virtually nonexistent and many people spend much of their waking life as avatars in an online virtual reality, dubbed “the nether,” where they can interact with other avatars in a hyper-realistic setting that includes vision, sound, smell, and physical sensation. Like Black Mirror, there’s also a heady moral dilemma at the heart of the MCC production, which runs through March 14 at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. And it’s a doozy.
An online cop named Detective Morris (played by Emmy-winning Nurse Jackie star Merritt Wever with dogged intensity) is investigating a private, for-profit, invitation-only nether-world locale called The Hideaway, whose visitors come to enact their private fantasies — cozying up to, ahem, prepubescent girls and then hacking them to death with an ax (before they reappear again, safe and sound and digitally reborn). The proprietor of the Hideaway (Tony winner Frank Wood), who calls himself Papa in his digital realm, concedes that he’s a pedophile, but that by creating a safe space for “consensual role play” he is protecting real children from falling prey to the proclivities of people like him or Doyle (Peter Friedman), a schoolteacher and Hideaway denizen whom Morris also interrogates.
But Detective Morris is having none of it. “Just because it’s virtual,” she argues, “doesn’t mean it’s not real.” And in cutaway scenes to the Hideaway, we see what she means. We follow a Hideaway newcomer (Boardwalk Empire‘s Ben Rosenfield, looking like Jesse Eisenberg’s younger brother) as he enters the online realm’s Victorian mansion and meets the precocious young Iris, played with precocious poise by Sophia Anne Caruso. And while we never see anything untoward take place, the suggestion of what is to come is clear and quite unsettling enough.
The performances, directed with delicate precision by Anne Kaufman, contribute to feeling of displacement. Wood projects a sad, suburban air that seems both reasonable and yet slightly off. And Wever brings a stridency to her quest for propriety, hinting at ulterior motives that only gradually emerge.
The Nether is part twisty police procedural, part philosophical debate about the consequences of free thought and imagination, and part moody sci-fi thriller. Haley’s play is also entirely original, continually upending our expectations and challenging our notion of what characters deserve our sympathy. Grade: B+