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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Nether

"I have taken responsibility for my sickness. I am protecting my neighbor's children and my brother's children and the children I won't allow myself to have and the only way I can do this is because I've created a place where I can be my own fucking self "— Sims
The Nether
Robert Joy and Jeanne Syquia (Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)
With her first major production, Jennifer Haley is already a whiz at giving wowza theatrical life to abstract ideas. She presents a future where many feel most alive online, playing out psycho-sexual fantasies of the Victorian past. Of course, The Nether couldn't feel more here and now.

The title promises carnality, myth, and distance, a swaddled transgression. The play follows through. Haley starts things in an interrogation room. She establishes, with clarity but a bit too much economy, a desiccated world with little sunlight or trees. Director Neel Keller's physical production at first mirrors the grey-lit world and, it seems, Apple stores.

The performances also start off fairly grey. Jeanne Syquia's Morris, an "in-world" detective responsible for keeping the net as law-and-ordered as possible, questions Robert Joy's Sims about his possible pedophilia. Both have the slightly stiff, non-emotive cadence common to many futuristic films. Even the movement is deliberate. It wouldn't be a surprise to find out Morris is a robot.

She believes Sims runs The Hideaway, a virtual site that evokes a late nineteenth-century bordello. Online visitors, or "guests," have their sexual and/or violent way with young girls. Sims claims there's no crime. The girls are mere avatars, whose words and actions are created by select adult "guests."

Morris may not be able to lock him up. But if he refuses to answer questions, she has the right to exile him from the net, or as it's called "The Nether." To a man like Sims, prison might be preferable, if there were computer privileges. He doesn't just run the site's technical and financial sides. He relishes his prominent on-site role as Papa, the bordello's proprietor.

As Sims starts to describe his work, the Hideaway appears in a genuine coup de theatre courtesy of Adrian W. Jones' revolving, multi-tiered, vibrantly colored Victorian house and Keller's fluid staging. Christopher Kuhl's lighting takes on natural hues. Alex Jaeger's costumes are in plush fabrics. The layered sound design of local virtuoso Jon Zalewski, until now all electronic hums, gives way to natural chirps and classical music. Even though conjuring an on-line world, this sequence, the most thrilling of the new year, is what only live theater can do.

Also twirling fetchingly is Iris (Brighid Fleming), the bordello's pretty baby. Papa introduces her to new guest Mr. Woodcut (Adam Haas Hunter), who's endearingly sweet. He's instantly smitten by Iris, refusing to consider Papa's offer of an ax. Chopping up the young mistresses, after all, prevents emotional attachment.

Haley and Keller tend to keep the physical provocations to a minimum. The young courtesans may be impersonated on-line by adults but Fleming, transfixing and assured, is a real live girl. Regardless, Woodcut seems most interested in prolonging his time by asking questions. We can empathize with his delay tactics. Who wouldn't prefer to stay in this Hideaway?

But Haley keeps things clicking along, alternating between both worlds, and introducing Doyle (Dakin Matthews), a science teacher. He's recently put all his affairs in order, a tell-tale sign he's planning to become a "shade," a permanent resident of the Nether. Matthews, one of the nation's best character actors, brings a yearning that warms the production.

Syquia eventually bring more passion as well. Hunter might benefit from her example. His Woodcut finally grabs that ax, but one never senses that he or any other events might careen out-of-control.

Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman provides a useful contrast. It shares a similar structure and interest in storytelling. His use of two interrogators, however, takes the pressure off one to represent the larger world of the play. And, in his distinctive style, the story and characters unleash stunningly primal forces.

The Nether, and Keller's production remain fixed on cooler pursuits. Haley stunningly sets our minds spinning with thoughts on the state of the world and the world wide web, not to mention allusions to artistic freedom and censorship. She also sets up narrative mysteries with aplomb.

We come to realize that most, if not all, of the characters who reside "in-world," marked by its artificiality, have their doppelgängers in the more vital, virtual world. Sorting out who's who makes for satisfying brain teases. But the writing is so economical, one can suss out the solutions from the rare personal details mentioned.

The Nether often seems like something developed from a stunningly sophisticated program. As such, it could use a little more of Papa's influence. He'd leave more room for the characters to unleash their personal predilections. I look forward to future productions and, more importantly, further visions from Haley. She's the real deal.

The Nether by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Neel Keller
Cast: Brighid Fleming (Iris), Adam Haas Hunter (Woodcut), Robert Joy (Papa), Dakin Matthews (Doyle), Jeanne Syquia (Morris)
Scenic Design: Adrian W. Jones
Lighting Design: Christopher Kuhl
Costume Design: Alex Jaeger
Sound Design: Jon Zalewski
Production Stage Manager: Kristin Parker
Kirk Douglas Theatre 9829 Washington Blvd, Culver City 213.628.2772
Runs Tuesday through Sunday through April 14
Running time: Ninety minutes
Reviewed by Jon Magaril
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