Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Nether takes place in a not-so-distant future where everyday life is largely lived online, in perfectly constructed fantasy worlds called "realms." The blurred line between real life and its virtual conduit has led to the creation of a police force dedicated to determining whether those who partake in (or help facilitate) criminal activity in the ether can actually be punished. As the play opens, Detective Morris (Bi Jean Ngo) interrogates Sims (Greg Wood), the creator of a dazzling realm called The Hideaway, a tranquil Victorian garden that recreates a kind of beauty no longer found in society. Within these confines, Simsknown there as "Papa"and his guests find peace enacting their basest desires, which they have tried to repress in reality.
Much of the play's driving force centers around Iris (Emi Branes-Huff), a nine-year-old girl who resides in The Hideaway and functions as Papa's pet. He dotes on her, taking her for long walks down country lanes and offering opulent presents, like a cake made out of ice. He also offers her anyone who can pay. We are meant to find this vile, of course; pedophilia is very nearly the final frontier of taboo behavior, never justifiable. But can online actions be treated the same as flesh and blood crimes? And for that matter, is Iris really even a little girl?
All these questions might make for a fascinating philosophical treatise, but as a work of dramatic literature, The Nether falls flat. The trendy, to-the-minute aspects of the plot hardly mask the fact that it's a standard potboiler, with its revelations visible miles away. The writing is clunky and often confusing, with Haley reluctant to clearly define the parameters of reality (and, for that matter, not-reality) inside her new world order.
She does no favors for her actors, either. Ngo tries hard, but Morris is a contradictory and nearly unplayable role. Meant to function as the defender of the tangible role, she comes off as a mechanical cipher. Similarly, Sims can only function if he appears likable and unsettling; Wood only succeeds in the latter respect. The best acting comes from Branes-Huff, who very capably navigates the uncertainty that surrounds Iris, and from Tim Moyer, playing a frequent visitor to The Hideaway who is ready to completely divest from the world. A fifth character, played by Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, is largely perfunctory.
The production benefits from realistic sets (by Melpomene Katakalos) and costumes (by Janus Stefanowicz) that create a distinct difference between the play's realms of existence. Unfortunately, the direction (by Seth Rozin, the company's founder and Artistic Director) often makes the already-tedious eighty minute running time feel even more glacial. It has been said that all art is political, and perhaps that is true. But art that works too hard to get its message across is bound to fail. That is the main problem with The Nether, which, in the end, is more of a screed than a play.
The Nether continues through Sunday, April 17, 2016, at InterAct Theatre Company (302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia). Tickets ($32-37) can be purchased online at interacttheatre.org, by phone (215-568-8079), or in person at the box office (Monday-Friday, 10-6, as well as one hour prior to curtain). Discounted tickets are available for students, senior citizens, and theatre industry professionals.