There’s a chill in the auditorium these days over at Imago Theatre. Some nights that’s due in part to some seasonally overzealous air conditioning, but mostly it’s the subtly creepy atmosphere of the current on-stage production by Third Rail Rep.
The Nether, by Los Angeles playwright Jennifer Haley, is escapist entertainment — at least in a manner of speaking. That is, it’s a play about escapism and the thorny ethical implications of a not-so-implausible future in which technology allows anyone with a valid log-in to become immersed in elaborate, multi-sensory virtual environments, like souped-up Second Life for the souls of the bored, deprived or otherwise damned.
It’s the levers of damnation — who controls them, or is even able to see them for what they are — that seem to interest Haley most. Of course the fictive future is the rhetorical present, and Haley’s play ponders current, and in some senses longstanding, questions about the lines between reality and representation, between relationships and transactions, between physical and psychological harms. The rapid advance of technology makes such issues both more present and more confounding. So Haley — a Paula Vogel protege whose horror-flick-styled look at video-game addiction Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom was staged a few years ago by Third Rail’s mentorship program — pushes the tech setting to a point where personal liberty and social responsibility get their feet tangled and push comes to shove.
Oh — and about that chill: the point of conflict here is child molestation and murder.
Virtual molestation and murder, mind you, digitally fabricated fantasies of detestable crimes. But still.
Both Haley’s script and Third Rail’s production, directed by Scott Yarbrough with his usual sure-handed rhythm and psychological cohesion, employ a light, discreet touch about the distasteful bits, leaving the ugly details to the audience’s imagination.
In other respects, our imaginations are guided into the world of the play by top-notch work from scenic designer Peter Ksander, who offers up both a gray, featureless interrogation room, and a contrasting image of bygone gentility in an understatedly elegant Victorian drawing room, and the electronic buzzing and crackling Mark Valadez sound design that serves as our portal between the two spaces. (Lighting by Jennifer Lin and costumes by Brynne Oster-Bainnson reinforce these contrasts well.)
The story opens in the interrogation room, with Chantal DeGroat as Morris, a steely detective for what seems to be a sort of FBI for the online body politic, cajoling and threatening Sims, a businessman and programmer who has devised an especially successful immersive online realm called the Hideaway. It’s not long before we can tease out the parameters of the world we’re in through bits of jargon: “shade,” “in-world,” “cross over,” etc. What we call the internet has grown into something called the Nether, which, as the natural world runs down, becomes an ever more attractive alternative, to the point that some folks just put their bodies on life support and link their minds up to permanent digital dreamworld. What makes the Hideaway so successful, and of such interest to Morris, is both that Sims has a gift for programming sensory detail and that his realm caters to those who would not just have sex with little girls but dismember them with an ax.
(This set-up calls for a young actress to portray the online avatar of these pedophile’s fantasies. In Agatha Olson, this production has someone who imbues Iris with both an innocent openness and an eerie mix of self-possession and blithe detachment. Plus, she’s been in such tricky waters before: In 2011, when she was eight, Olson made her Third Rail debut as a four-year-old with a vaginal rash in Bruce Norris’ controversial family-comedy powderkeg “The Pain and the Itch.”)
Morris has questions: Where is the server Sims uses? (She wants to shut down the site, of course.) What happens to the people behind the underage avatars, who seem to change periodically? And who was the original model for Iris, the little-girl archetype that Sims and his customers so desire?
Sims, who Third Rail co-founder Michael O’Connell plays as a bright, reasonable man at a negotiated peace with his dark impulses, won’t cooperate, and the rest of this brisk one-act is a fairly conventional spy vs. spy story in digital garb, albeit with ethical inquiry still at its heart. (“Its appeal is that of a crafty short story with lurid topical resonance,” wrote Ben Brantley last year in The New York Times. “Imagine an episode of ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ written by a futurist fiction writer like Ray Bradbury or Iain Banks.”)
Is the Hideaway an incitement to real-world crime? Or is it a harmless diversion, a safety valve for otherwise dangerous impulses? Why not to each his own idyll? And what’s the correlation between what is real — however we determine that — and what is consequential?
With the addition of an elderly man devoted to his time in the Hideaway (played with a poignant, sad dignity by Del Lewis) and a tentative new visitor (Joshua Weinstein, perched between boyish awkwardness and frightened rectitude), the story delivers surprises both in its plot twists and its emotional resonances.
Different viewers might reach different conclusions about the many questions presented. But to Sims’ main argument in favor of the Hideaway, that it is valuable as “an opportunity to live outside of consequence,” Haley seems to counter that no human, regardless of programming skills, is likely to truly crack that code.
Third Rail’s The Nether continues through October 22 at Imago Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.