NEW YORK (AP) — In a dystopian near-future — is there any other kind predicted, lately? — playwright Jennifer Haley has created a sophisticated detective story set in the world of virtual reality.
Her play, "The Nether," winner of the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, envisions that much in our lives has become virtual. Verdant nature is scarce, and all schooling and most jobs take place in online realms called the Nether.
The chillingly effective production from MCC Theater that opened Tuesday night off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre is well-acted and unnerving. Simplified staging by Anne Kauffman showcases Haley's confidently written conflict between human desires and the right to privacy versus society's need to impose moral limitations, even on fantasy.
In an oppressive, gray interrogation room, stern cyber-detective Morris, (Merritt Wever) brusquely questions a businessman named Sims (Frank Wood), accusing him of terrible crimes and demanding information about the degenerate virtual realm he operates. Wever produces a flat, controlled affectation and seems to struggle with Morris' hardboiled demeanor, but maybe Morris isn't quite as hardboiled as she first appears.
Sims has created a virtual fantasy world called the Hideaway, where he reigns as "Papa" and allows customers to anonymously assume Victorian-era identities and do terrible things to very young children "outside of consequence." Wood is confidently smarmy and outraged as Sims, who can't believe Morris is attempting to shut down his perfectly legitimate business on moral grounds when nobody is actually getting hurt.
Morris also interrogates one of Sims' customers, an embittered science teacher named Doyle, who spends a lot of time at the Hideaway. As Doyle, Peter Friedman easily displays his character's world-weariness and vulnerabilities, along with frustration that Morris can't comprehend what a wonder it is that people can interact safely inside their imaginations.
Glimpses of the idyllic, sunlit Hideaway include a child's perfect pink and white bedroom and a beautiful, lush garden, which form the backdrops for heinous but virtual crimes. Sims' current favorite child is 9-year-old Iris, played with innocent savvy by Sophia Anne Caruso. Her Iris is so bright, sympathetic and engaging that it's easy to forget she's the virtual persona of an adult.
The plot takes some neat twists and turns, as disturbing personal secrets alter our perceptions. Haley poses thought-provoking concepts about the nature of our modern online lives, and alternative ways to love and interact with one another.