The Nether now playing at San Francisco Playhouse, made me squirm and that’s why I recommend you go see it. People log in fourteen hours a day to the Nether, a future incarnation of the internet, or they log in permanently and become shades, dying when finally taken off life support.
In this showstopper from director Bill English, the virtual-reality Victorian estate depicted on stage exerts a seductive pull. I felt a sick uneasiness as I was sucked in. It’s the most compelling internet-related play I’ve seen. Playwright Jennifer Haley refuses to turn a blind-eye to its dangers.
In this dystopia, the natural world has sickened and not a single tree remains. Lolling on a garden bench on a sunny afternoon happens only online. The play opens in Detective Morris’s interrogation room with steel doors and cement walls. Her father became a shade and was taken off life support. This personal tragedy drives her. She grills Mr. Sims on the whereabouts of his Nether server.
The wealthy Mr. Sims runs a popular virtual-reality site that caters to pedophiles. He created the Hideaway, a Victorian mansion and garden where people log in and assume an identity to escape their woes and live their fantasies without consequence. Mr. Sims claims his site is no different from other virtual reality porn sites. “Haven’t you ever fucked an elf,” he demands of Morris. He plays the beleaguered businessman making a buck fulfilling the lurid needs of the marketplace.
On opening night, the theater went pitch-black and when the lights came up, the audience was logged into the Hideaway. Papa, Mr. Sims’ avatar, appears in the foyer and the avatar Iris, a sweet-faced girl with dimples, runs to him, her ringlets and petticoat bouncing.
At first nothing seems to be amiss. Iris shows a guest, a young Mr. Woodnut, to her bedroom. They dance to a gramophone and play jacks on the bedroom floor. She invites him to stroke her cheek. She removes her pinafore.
Back in the interrogation room, the characters express longing, grief and yearning. Mr. Sims talks about his childhood, of cotton clothing, of the poplar trees outside his bedroom window. The Nether has gone beyond virtual reality to visceral reality and is able to provide physical sensations of wind in the trees, the scent of flowers, real waistcoats and cotton petticoats. But also blood and gore dripping from an ax.
The audience was squirming now.
One of the characters says, “We’re all broken people here.” But was it the Nether that broke them? Or was it that the world chipped away at their reason to live?
By this time, we had pieced together the clues to Iris’s identity.
In the final scene, Mr. Sims sits in the darkened interrogation room repeating an earlier conversation he had with Iris on a garden bench under a grove of poplars. The simple exchange shows us two humans yearning for love and finding each other. I could almost hear their hearts beat, beat, beat.
—Donna Peck. Photography courtesy San Francisco Playhouse. The Nether runs until March 5, 2016.