Legit Review: 'The Nether'

Like the hard-core radical voyeurs in Jennifer Haley’s terrific sci-fi play “The Nether,” you won’t want to leave the Hideaway, that site on a futuristic Internet that caters to men in search of Victorian children. Nor will you want to leave the Kirk Douglas Theater, which gave Haley’s play its world premiere. Voyeurism is the future, Haley tells us, and it’s already here. Great science-fiction is always more about the present than it is what’s to come.

Detective Morris (Jeanne Syquia) interrogates the creator of the Hideway, a self-admitted pedophile named Sims (Robert Joy), whose client Doyle (Dakin Matthews), a 65-year-old science teacher, also ends up being questioned about his activities on the site. In her opening scenes, Haley deftly handles the exposition and lingo: “the Nether,” the Internet of the future; “shades,” people who go on life-support to live in the Nether; “in-world banishment,” restricted use of the Nether. There’s no opening scroll a la “The Blade Runner” to give us the backstory or definitions, but Haley makes it work.

“The Nether” is a difficult play to review; it’s filled with so many twists and turns and surprises — and that’s just Adrian. W. Jones’ magnificent multitiered turntable set! Like the first time I saw “Psycho” or “The Heiress” or “The Crying Game,” I’m delighted to have experienced “The Nether” having known next to nothing about it.

Even before Haley takes us to the Hideway, Morris’ interrogations of Sims and Doyle fascinate. Who’s more despised in contempo culture than a pedophile? These heated conversations, however, are really about creativity and the limits of imagination (and ultimately the nature of love) but foremost, Haley’s characters are talking about art and the theater, although that prosaic term is never mentioned in this future world. How different is our watching “The Nether” at the Kirk Douglas from Sims and Doyle going to the Hideaway? Or Lewis Carroll writing “Alice in Wonderland” or Vladimir Nabokov “Lolita”? It’s different, as well as the same.

Haley does take us to the Hideaway, a remarkable Victorian house complete with a little girl named Iris, played by the remarkable Brighid Fleming, who’s a deadringer for Kirsten Dunst in “Interview With the Vampire.” Iris is creepily compliant and has a way of blanking out whenever a new client, Woodnut (Adam Haas Hunter), mentions “shades” or “the Nether.” She’s ersatz Victorian, but Victorian just the same.

Of course, no one at the Hideaway is whom they appear to be on the surface. The only exception is the proprietor Sims, and even he doesn’t know who Iris and Woodnut really are. Sims, however, does know to put down his interrogator: “Do you mean to tell me you’ve never fucked an elf?!”

Neel Keller directs a superb ensemble.

Theater companies with fewer resources than the Center Theater Group shouldn’t shy away from staging Haley’s play. Scrims and platforms could be subbed for that great Victorian house. Then again, impresarios might have to wait in line. This sci-fi winner looks to have a very big commercial production in its near future.

(Kirk Douglas Theater, Culver City; 131 seats; $50 top)

A Center Theater Group presentation of a play in one act by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Neel Keller. Set, Adrian W. Jones; costumes, Alex Jaeger; lighting, Christopher Kuhl; sound, John Zalewski. Opened and reviewed March 24, 2013. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

With: Brighid Fleming, Adam Haas Hunter, Robert Joy, Dakin Matthews, Jeanne Syquia.

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