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A CurtainUp Review
The Nether

Additional Comments by Jon Magaril

1. Another world for mythical creatures
2. Demon world
3. A dimension of Evil or Imagination
— definition in
Jennifer Haley's merger of the futuristic sci-fi and police procedural genre has sent chills down viewers' backs in London and Los Angeles. Now, it's in New York at MCC's Lucille Lortel Theater with a new director and cast. The rather grungy, old-fashioned theater with no easy viewing amenities like raked seating, underscores the contrast between the life style we've long experienced and the changes seeded by technology — the good along with the problematic addiction to computer and cell phone screens spawned by the internet.

The sci-fi premise is that the Internet has morphed into an eerie world known as The Nether where people known as Shades spend most of their time. A creepy man called Sims who is proprietor of a virtual realm known as "The Hideaway" caters to the needs of men addicted to a particular form of on line addiction. The play's police procedural element involves an investigation by a Detective Morris. She represents an "in-world" organization dedicated to prosecuting "other-world" activities that cross the line of what's morally tolerable — in this case virtual pedophilia with very real and disturbing consequences.

Every care has been taken by director Anne Kauffman and her creative team to keep New York theater goers at the edge of their seats, as was the case in London and Los Angeles. Frank Woods makes your skin crawl as Papa, the Hideaway's frightening proprietor and rule maker. His self-righteous insistence on doing nothing wrong (which includes his financial dealings) hardly makes him likeable. As Doyle, Peter Friedman, another outstanding and versatile New York character actor, is more pitiful than despicable as the respected high school teacher and family man who Detective Morris has sought out as a witness against Sims.

Merritt Wever, a favorite with Nurse Jackie fans, brings unswerving determination to the role of the detective. Though working within the framework we're familiar with from countless Law & Order interrogation scenes, her Morris is working with a whole new set of policies and procedures.

Sophia Anne Caruso as Iris, the curly haired little girl who is the focus of all the Hideaway patrons' obsession, is in her way as creepy as Woods' Papa. The same is true of Ben Rosenfield as Morris's undercover agent Woodnut (pronounce it fast and it's a play on Haley's dual genre).

Of Course, much of the impact and tooth clenching scariness of any production of The Nether is the way the text and action move back and forth between the grimly colorless interrogation room and Sims's fantasy playground. The play opens on a bare stage with just a table and chair so that it looks as if this will all play out in the interrogation room. But Laura Jellinek, probably much like previous production designers, has created a theatrical coup by letting that back wall pop open periodically to reveal the sunny Victorian bordello where the 's Shades visit their own little Iris. (Note: For another view of " The Hideaway" in London click here.

Occasional side-by-side views of Morris's and Sims's world vividly point out that the brightly lit, bordello and charmingly dressed little girl are indeed even darker than the world of a police interrogation room. This visual picture is is stunning, but probably not quite so much as in the London or Los Angles production. It's well supported by costumer Jessica Pabst, lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound and original composition collaborators Daniel Kluger and Brandon Wolcott.

The Nether is a lot shorter and more briskly paced than the five-hour revival of The Iceman Cometh I recently saw at BAM. But it's also not light entertainment. It will, however, shake you up. Not a bad thing for a theatrical outing.

The Nether by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Anne Kaufman
Cast (in order of Appearance): Frank Woods (Sims/Papa), Merritt Wever (Morris), Peter Friedman (Doyle),Sophia Anne Caruso (Iris), Ben Rosenfield (Woodnut).
Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design: Jessica Pabst
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design & Original Composition: Daniel Kluger and Brandon Wolcott
Stage Manager: Vanessa Coakley
Running Time: 75 Minutes
MCC at Lucille Lortel Theatre 121 Christopher Street
From 2/04/15; opening 2/24/15; closing 3/22/15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/21 press matinee,
Additional Comments by Jon Magaril
Whether you prefer dystopian, futuristic sci-fi or a Shavian debate on topical issues, The Nether presents significant satisfactions. A second visit, after having viewed the '13 world premiere in Los Angeles, confirms playwright Jennifer Haley's prowess at construction, concision, and conceptualizing. But it also solidifies the conviction that psychological, emotional, and intellectual insights are not high on the list of proffered pleasures.

Anne Kaufman's current staging features seventy-five breathless minutes of gripping theater. Yet the set design, by the formidable Laura Jellinek, doesn't match the breathtaking work of Adrian W. Jones in Los Angeles. And design, more than usual, is integral to The Nether's effectiveness.

One of the play's main locations is "The Hideaway," a virtual Victorian bordello where the nether world's denizens can ravish their senses with underage children. These acts, both sexual and violent in nature, cannot be overtly depicted. The physical representation of the bordello becomes a necessary analogue to its satisfactions. Fittingly, the Hideaway in the world premiere production first appeared in a thrilling coup de theatre and remained an intoxicating theatrical vision every time it came into view.

LA's Kirk Douglas Theatre, like NY's Second Stage and Playwrights' Horizons, has a tall, deep playing space not all that smaller in scope from the quainter Broadway houses. By contrast, NY's Lortel Theater has a low ceiling and perhaps doesn't provide other mechanical possibilities for visions to overwhelm the senses.

As a result, Kauffman's production talks a good game about the virtual world's seductiveness but shows only fetching glimpses of it. The bountiful beauty of the world premiere spurred audiences to sense the pull of an unreal Hideaway. It compelled us to sense that the desire to surrender repeatedly to theatrical thrills is just a tiny step from Haley's characters' preference for virtual pleasures.

At MCC's impressive production, our synapses fire with tantalizing, timely thoughts. LA's staging warmed the senses just enough to make our blood suddenly run cold.

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