It takes a lot of doing to put together a boring production of a play about pedophilia. Nonetheless, that’s the dubious achievement of MCC’s lackluster presentation of “The Nether,” Jennifer Haley’s controversial drama set in a highly digitized futuristic world where human pedophiles can cavort with uncomfortably realistic “children.” The play won the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and other kudos when it premiered at the Center Theater Group in L.A. and has gone on to play the West End in a co-production of the Royal Court and Headlong. But helmer Anne Kauffman’s take on this incendiary material is downright dreary.
Haley’s intricately constructed narrative unfolds on two planes of reality. There’s the world we normally think of as reality, but some years into the future, where an actual police detective named Morris (Merritt Wever, who holds an Emmy for “Nurse Jackie”) sits at an actual desk and interrogates an actual suspect named Sims (the formidable Frank Wood) for his shady behavior in another, virtual world called the Nether, which is like the Internet on steroids.
In this futuristic era, people don’t normally work at actual desks in actual offices (or do much of anything in the real world) because human life is largely conducted in the virtual reality of the Nether. Just about anything you need or wish for — including the sensual experience of possessing objects of desire — has been replicated and can be accessed through a server. But even in this highly evolved and extremely permissive society, some things are just not tolerated.
That explains why Morris is grilling the sinister Mr. Sims about the Hideaway, a virtual paradise he has created for pedophiles like himself.
As described by Doyle (in a compassionate perf from Peter Friedman), an obsessive visitor to Sims’ creepy amusement park, the setting for the Hideaway is an imposing Victorian house on the secluded grounds of a grand estate. In the privacy of this virtual Garden of Eden members’ personal avatars are free to interact with the avatars of innocent but decidedly seductive children programmed to indulge their every whim, from having sex with them to chopping them up with an axe.
To gain insight and access to this forbidden kingdom, Morris dispatches a young undercover detective named Woodnut (Ben Rosenfield, looking spiffy in Jessica Pabst’s period duds) to pose as a client. But once he meets his assigned avatar, a charming child named Iris (well played by the charming child actor, Sophia Anne Caruso) this impressionable lad is won over to the dark side, seduced by the twisted logic on which the Hideaway operates.
But, alas, despite the rapturous word pictures drawn by Sims (whose creepy avatar is called Papa) and by besotted clients like poor Doyle, there’s nothing transporting (or even very pretty) about the show’s cheesy visuals. Ben Stanton lights up a storm when the walls fall away to reveal a few glimpses of the Hideaway. But little imagination and less money has gone into realizing a pervert’s idea of heaven. (If you don’t have the budget, people, don’t do the show.)
More damaging to the scribe’s high-minded intentions, the anticipated debate on issues like the insidious power of the internet and the moral consequences of acting out one’s darkest fantasies never heats up. Actually, the fantasts present some convincing arguments on the core issue of whether indulging forbidden behaviors in a “safe” virtual environment contains or inflames criminal behavior. Thanks to powerful performances from Wood and Friedman, and some sweet arguments from Caruso, the perverts make an uncomfortably strong case for themselves.
But the good guys aren’t up to the challenge. Wever is just outclassed by the superior thesps, and Rosenfield is too besotted with the character of Iris to think straight. We’re not asking for Detective Benson here (or maybe we are), but nobody on the clean team has a speck of grit.