In 75 minutes, Jennifer Haley’s “The Nether” poses enough questions about moral and psychological aspects of the Internet to keep audiences pondering for days.
Manbites Dog Theater’s excellent staging satisfies artistically while provoking gripping discomfort about the dangers of online anonymity.
In the near future, the Internet is now The Nether, a sprawling virtual world that hides troubling pedophile subcultures using virtual reality to satisfy their urges.
Female detective Morris is investigating one such site, The Hideaway, convinced that the owner, Mr. Sims, is damaging its participants by inciting them to duplicate their virtual acts in real life. Brought in for questioning, he boldly rebuffs threats to shut him down, saying his business is properly licensed and its encryption shields him from knowing his members.
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Morris ferrets out one member, Mr. Doyle, who reluctantly reveals The Hideaway’s setup, in which adults take on virtual personas to interact physically with “children,” played by adult employees. Sims is the site’s “Papa,” controlling the fantasy playground done up as a Victorian house to add a seeming innocence.
Morris’ persistence, driven by her own past, leads to shocking truths.
Michael Brocki gives one of his finest performances as Sims/Papa, smugly confident and coldly businesslike until circumstances rock his world. Michael Foley makes Doyle’s situation sympathetic, moving from defiant to devastated. As Morris, Caitlin Wells goes for a quietly steely character, but, at Thursday’s performance, it was tentatively drawn, diminished by lines spoken so softly they lost impact and clarity.
In The Hideaway scenes, Lazarus Simmons’ first-time guest, Woodnut, shows appropriate shy wonder in his developing relationship with 9-year-old Iris, played with admirable pluck and confidence by Marleigh Purgar-McDonald.
Director Jules Odendahl-James offers a precisely controlled production, in which Sonya Leigh Drum’s charming child’s bedroom and cold interrogation room are defined by hanging panels that swivel to change scenes. Ashley Nicole Owen’s period costumes and Joseph Amodei’s whispery sound design beautifully knit everything together.
Haley evenly presents the dilemma of giving pedophiles an outlet that might encourage real-world activities. She also questions how online activities might affect the ability to express love in everyday life. Few audience members will come away unaffected by this engrossing production.
What: “The Nether” by Jennifer Haley
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham
When: 8:15 p.m. Apr. 8-9, 14-16, 20-23; 2 p.m. April 10; 7:30 p.m. April 17
Tickets: $12 Wednesdays-Thursdays; $20 Fridays-Sundays. (Seniors/military $2 off; students $5 weeknights and $10 weekends)
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org