“The Nether” is a surprising, provocative look at immorality via avatar

By Lucy Komisar

People that do bad things should be punished for them. People that video bad things and post them on the internet should get punished. What about people who use avatars to do bad things on fantasy internet sites? And what if those bad things are realistic pedophilia and murder?

Jennifer Haley‘s unusual play shows a fantasy world where bad things, (which you don‘t ever see) go on. It is not an erotic or sadistic drama. It‘s sci fi, but only partly. It‘s rather an intellectual provocation. It is crisply directed by Anne Kauffman.

Ben Rosenfield as Woodnut and Sophia Anne Caruso as Iris, photo Jenny Anderson.

A man is having sex with a young girl and then killing her with an axe. They are Woodnut (Ben Rosenfield) in his 20s and Iris (a superb precocious and self-assured Sophia Anne Caruso), 9. We see them in The Hideaway, a fantasy website on a server out of the country.

Iris, in a white lace dress, pink ribbons in hair,” tells Woodnut, “Perhaps you like to start with the axes. Is there something else you like to play?” She pulls off her dress.

The avatars are real people who not only play the characters but enter into the netherworld. The Hideaway is run by Sims (the excellent Frank Wood), a businessman in his 40s who has set up the website on a server out of the country. It feeds his own dark desires  and is also  lucrative.

Frank Wood as Sims and Merritt Wever as Morris, photo Jenny Anderson.

A detective on the outside (Merritt Wever) is investigating it. She interviews Sims and Cedric Doyle (Peter Friedman) 65, a former science teacher, both of whom have avatars. Sims is “Papa,” which is what Iris calls him. We‘re not sure who Doyle is.

Sims argues  that nothing is happening in the real world. He jokes, “Real children are hard to come by these days. It‘s not like they play outside anymore.” And he insists, “We don‘t involve users who are underage.” Besides, he says, he is protecting real children as his clients act out their fantasies online.

Ben Rosenfield as Woodnut, Sophia Anne Caruso as Iris and Merritt Wever as Morris, photo Jenny Anderson.

Through openings in the dreary brick-walled interrogation room we see the netherworld as brightly lit spaces, a house, a garden. We learn that the girls all look the same.

Sims says, “Are you accusing me of creating pedophiles? If anything, I‘m giving them
a place to blow off steam.”

Haley raises the issue of the morality of such fantasy. Can people do evil things online and live outside of consequences?

Morris replies to him, “You foster a culture of legitimization, telling them their desires are not only acceptable, but commendable.” She says, “Who knows what your guests are doing offline.”

The play is fascinating, and, if you take the  sci fi crossing over as a  way of allowing real predators to act out and then return to real life, it is chilling.

“The Nether.” Written by Jennifer Haley, directed by Anne Kauffman. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, New York City. (212) 352-3101. Opened Feb 24, 2015; closes March 29, 2015. 3/18/15.

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