By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Jennifer Haley sets much of her new play, The Nether, in an elaborate virtual reality — think Second Life, where you wander about as your chosen avatar, but a hyped-up version that allows you to see and feel the experience happening around you.
It's a fantasy world that shares a striking similarity with one portrayed in a buzzed-about film that also opened last week: Spring Breakers. Like The Nether, the film shows characters trapped in a life of drab buildings and sexual repression who escape to a realm of decadence, ruled by a man with a one-word name, sometimes crossing ethical and legal boundaries along the way. While Spring Breakers has more of a knowing smirk — you won't see girls in bathing suits and ski masks holding guns and dancing to Britney Spears at the Kirk Douglas Theatre — both engage the question of whether to indulge our innermost urges, sexual and otherwise.
Its ability to dovetail with the movie of the moment is part of what makes The Nether such a rare gem. Big-budget theater rarely has this kind of hip factor and hardly ever addresses issues in cutting-edge technology with as much sophistication as we see here. Plus, it's not every day that the elite L.A. theater company (Center Theatre Group) offers the world premiere of a play by an L.A. playwright performed by L.A. actors and shaped by L.A. designers. All of this is cause for celebration — making it easy to ignore the fact that this thought-provoking work, in its current form, does not ultimately offer enough of an affecting emotional ride.
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So ignore we shall, at least for a bit, as we revel in the play's remarkable relationship to this place and time. Its subject matter evokes the many technology-entertainment combinations headquartered in L.A.: web series, YouTube stars, video game companies and transmedia narratives in which film, for instance, might continue its story into other media, such as online components or even board games.
The play also taps into our city's often dysfunctional relationship with sex. Yes, this is the land of pornography, but it's also a place where we routinely find ourselves shocked by sexual abuse, including the LAUSD teacher famously accused last year of feeding his students cookies covered with his semen — an incident that comes to mind in the play when a character engaging in deviant behavior is described as "one of the top teachers in the country." Theater can be resistant to low-brow trends or ham-fisted in its topicality, and the fact that a play can hold its own in this conversation is encouraging.
We'll only reveal a taste of the story, as audiences will benefit from knowing less. It begins in the future, in a drab holding cell with metal chairs and fluorescent lighting. A detective named Morris (Jeanne Syquia), decked out in badass black, interrogates Sims (Robert Joy), dressed all in gray with a Star Trek–style black collar. They're discussing the Nether, the play's virtual-reality world — and, in particular, Sims' intimate involvement in an area called the Hideaway, where your freakiest fantasies can come true.
The production then transports us to this realm, set in a milieu that won't be given away here — one that is a clever counterpoint to the holding cell's cold, depressing reality. This shift happens not through fancy projections, which would be expected in a tech-themed work, but more eloquently, through Adrian W. Jones' turntable set.
As Morris tries to track down and eradicate the Hideaway, we meet several of its denizens and visitors, including the schoolteacher (played by Dakin Matthews with watchable understatement), a young girl (Brighid Fleming) and a gentleman caller named Woodnut (Adam Haas Hunter), all trying to hold onto the secret online lives they hold so dear.
Haley thinks a lot about virtual spaces. Her previous plays include Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, about suburban teens killing digital zombies (presented locally at Sacred Fools in 2010), and Froggy, described in its current $15,000 Kickstarter campaign as being about a woman who "goes in search of her missing lover after spotting him in a video game."
The Nether, which won the prestigious 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for an outstanding, English-language play by a female writer, is saturated with complex ideas and opinions that get squeezed out over the play's 90 minutes. One of the most intriguing is an empathy with sexual deviance that recalls Edward Albee's Tony Award–winning 2002 play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, a thought experiment that tests our aversion to bestiality. The Nether puts similarly unquestionable acts on the same spectrum as our far more ordinary secrets that technology enables — be it through email, Twitter, sexting, chatrooms, avatars or online dating profiles. Could this separation between our real and online selves be a good thing, the play wonders, allowing us to live healthier lives overall?
A few intriguing interactive lobby exhibits — which Center Theatre Group often creates for shows at the Kirk Douglas — reinforce the relevance of these issues. A table on your way out of the theater has bowls marked with labels like "I have at least one friendship with someone I've never met in person" and asks you to put jacks into the bowl that applies to you. Across from the bathrooms, cards labeled "Nobody knows I dream about..." allow theatergoers to finish that sentence by writing inside the cards and then hanging them on strings. (One said, "Stuff I'll do after my husband dies.")