By Richard Pacheco
The Jennifer Haley play, “The Nether” currently at the Gamm is an excursion into the dark side of the virtual worlds of the Internet. It is not lasting literature but more like a lurid side trip that leaves you disgusted by the virtual haven for pedophiles and its seamier aspects of murder in an interpretation and invention of polices procedurals. It is a sci-fi serpentine crime thriller that lingers in the darker side of private dreams.
While the author claims to despise police procedurals, the play turns out to be a weak example of one in many ways. “The Nether,” which had its debut in 2012 in Los Angeles and has seen multiple productions, including off-Broadway and on London’s West End.
However the acting here is excellent with many deft and probing performances. The place where all this atrocities take place is called The Hideaway. The plot revolves around the efforts of a detective, Morris, to delve into the seamy underside of this place and if any violations of law are found, bring the perpetrators to justice. Nothing is clear and obvious because in the virtual world all kinds of things can happen from pedophilia to murder with few if any real world consequences unless you follow the detective’s logic. The actions shift between a dire space with a lighted cube in the middle and black curtains, the investigation room to the Victorian mansion where The virtual Hideaway exists.
The man behind The Hideaway is Simms, who in the virtual world is called Papa and behind the virtual pedophilia there. He is aloof and self confident, a man who feels his actions in the virtual world are harmless and beyond the scope and jurisdiction of law enforcement. Simms is slickly confident and his abilities to skirt beyond the law in the virtual world. Richard Donelly plays Simms/Papa with finesse, inside the virtual world giving him a disconcerting, creepiness and is sure to disturb. Outside the virtual environment, interacting with Detective Morris, he is less assured, more concerned and nervous about the forces closing in on him.
His nemesis in this is Detective Morris, who is relentless in her quest to find him guilty of something she can persecute in the real world, something that derives from the virtual world Simms in habits. Morris is clever and at times devious, doing whatever she has to in order to snare Simms. Casey Seymour Kim is the astute detective, who is like a rabid pit bull determined to not let go. Kim is full of finesse in the role balancing determination with a shrewd deviousness.
Doyle is the man who the detective hopes to use to snare Simms. He is a rather ordinary man with darker desires, and a predilection for children as a sexual being. But only in the nether, not in real life. He is uncomfortable with his dark desires and Morris hopes to use that to enlist his aid to entice Simms to crimes in the real world. Jim O’Brien is Doyle, the man on the edge. He is nervous, and fearful, cautious and defensive, ready to protect himself no matter what it takes to escape responsibility in the real world for acts in the virtual. O’Brien is wonderful in the role, a mixture of guilt and defensiveness, a passionate desire to escape responsibility in the real world ro acts committed in the virtual.
Then there is Iris, the young girl in the Hideaway. She is innocent in some ways, and a temptress in others. She is the epitome of that mixture of appealing in a dark way and repulsive in others. Ally Gower is winning in the role, always managing to maintain the balance between innocence and darker implications with skill and grace.
Finally there is Woodnut, who is the counterpart for Doyle in the nether. HE is younger in the avatar than is Doyle, more dapper and fun filled. HE is really attracted to Iris and wants to love her not merely have sex with her, something forbidden in the nether. Jaime Default is Woodnut, a man with darker motives but still clinging on to his more moral side, even when confronted by the darker desires of the nether in The Hideaway. He is a combination of the skittery and the determined, lost amid a darker world and battling his better instincts.
Judith Swift directs with a keen eye to evoking the best from her cast and they deliver despite some of the issues with the play itself.
The Sarah Osana set design is the right mixture of stark interrogation room to elaborate Victorian manor.
Together this makes for a journey into the dark of private desires no matter how horrific into a virtual world where there are seemingly no consequences for those actions and the moral issues that invokes. The acting is superb, but the play seems a bit lacking like an inferior police procedural that the author so despises.
“The Nether” at Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket, March 2-26, $33 previews (through Sunday); $44 and $52 (401) 723-4266, gammtheatre.org