Jennifer Haley’s The Nether is one of the most intellectually stimulating shows of the season, a dark, brilliant journey into a futuristic realm where people can experience “life without consequence.” Sharing the same name as a hellish dimension in the online game Minecraft, The Nether begins in a dank, dungeon-like room where Detective Morris (Merritt Wever) is grilling Sims (Frank Wood), a creepy, well-dressed entrepreneur who has made a fortune creating the Hideaway, an online portal where men can become avatars who do bad things to avatars of young girls. Sims — whose name is a direct reference to the Sims, the immensely popular and groundbreaking virtual reality video game series — is known as Papa in the Hideaway, serving as a kind of father-pimp figure to such creations as nine-year-old Iris (thirteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso), his current favorite. Morris is also questioning Doyle (Peter Friedman), a sixty-five-year-old teacher and theoretician who is obsessed with the Hideaway. Meanwhile, a dapper fellow named Woodnut (Ben Rosenfield) has entered the illusional realm, breaking the rules as he explores a relationship with Iris that he knows is wrong. The various subplots come together in an explosive conclusion that is nothing short of mind blowing.
Winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, The Nether is an intensely gripping thriller that takes online gaming and virtual reality to the next level while posing stirring, provocative inquiries into the nature of god, creativity, imagination, and technology, all packed into seventy-five heart-stopping minutes. Emmy nominee Wever (Nurse Jackie, Hater) is outstanding as Morris, a woman with her own secrets who refuses to see the Hideaway as anything but evil, while Tony winner Wood (Side Man, Clybourne Park) plays Sims with just the right touch of sympathetic depth and repellent charm. Rosenfield (Boardwalk Empire, Through a Glass Darkly) is a kind of avatar for the audience, intrigued by what is happening in the Hideaway, frightened of participating yet captivated by the allure, while Friedman (The Open House, The Hatmaker’s Wife) excels as a man who has risked everything to exist in Sims’s world. Most impressive, however, is Caruso (Ruthless! The Musical, Secondhand Lions), who is simply superb in a role that is most likely as difficult to play as it is to watch, walking a very fine line between theatricality and child abuse; she is completely in command of the part, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel shocked as she interacts with grown men in rather adult ways. Laura Jellinek’s set is a bleak, claustrophobic gray room that opens up inventively to alternate realities bursting with life and bright color. Obie-winning director Anne Kauffman (Smokefall, Belleville) orchestrates it all with finesse as the action moves from a powerful police procedural to a disturbing unreal Eden that celebrates molestation and murder. With The Nether, Haley (Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, They Call Her Froggy) has written a taut, highly original investigation into how people relate to one another in these fast-changing times. “This communication — the experience of each other — is the root of consciousness,” Doyle says. Such statements get right to the soul of this magical, terrifying show.