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.
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.")
The obvious danger in a play like this one is that its ideas will create a distance between the audience and its characters — and The Nether doesn't avoid it. It's not that the play ignores emotion; it's that The Nether wants to be, and should be, more than just a play of ideas. These characters have emotional arcs — but their culmination doesn't hit you in the gut. Even detective Morris becomes emotionally invested in the Hideaway, albeit in a way that feels too convenient and unconvincing. Perhaps more finely detailed backstories would help — more passages like the poignant one in which Sims confesses to a salacious encounter that helped motivate his need to escape from real life.
Some smaller factors also detract. Detective Morris' mystery-solving leads to some tightly written scenes and surprising revelations, yet it occasionally becomes too much of a ping-pong match. In these scenes, Sims ably deflects her damnation but often feels too behind the game to be the savvy Fast Company cover subject that he'd be in this imagined future. And the young girl gets a fine portrayal by Fleming, yet the play's coyness in revealing her role in this sexually charged world is a little self-conscious.
The play wants to be, ultimately, about love. Yet perhaps its version of love — between people who are not only far apart in age but who are appearing in bodies sometimes very different from their real-life selves — is one too many degrees removed from even our current technologically mediated incarnation.
A telling moment comes when one character is portrayed by two actors in the same moment — one playing the real person and the other portraying the person's virtual self. It's an entertaining bit of theatricality, but it also inhibits our ability to identify with the character.
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What's most impressive about director Neel Keller's production is how it manages to convey ideas about futuristic technology through good old-fashioned stagecraft. Not only is there Jones' arresting set but also Christopher Kuhl's lighting, which at times envelopes the audience much as a virtual world does.
A smaller but equivalent moment is when Woodnut examines his palm after shaking Sims' hand, unable to believe that the Hideaway can feel so real. Such instances suggest a method for powerfully conveying science fiction through theater, an effort that in future drafts or productions of this play, or others, might create a more lasting impression.
THE NETHER | By Jennifer Haley | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Sun., 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m.; through April 14 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org
Follow the writer on Twitter at @zpincusroth