"The Nether," the 2013 play by Jennifer Haley that opened at the Phoenix Theatre Thursday night, "takes place in the near future," the program book tells us. It's a canny positioning of the drama's placement in time. It prepares the audience for seeing so much of the present worming its way into a technological dystopia that Haley's startling manipulations of character and setting seem plausible. The putative nearness of this particular future is frightening.
We are already on the threshold of establishing second and third selves online, depending on how much we choose to engage with what it offers. On Facebook, wading along the shore of this ocean, many of us count without qualms "friends" we barely know. Sometimes, instead of imparting what we know and feel in real-world conversation, we choose to share a link.
"What's on your mind?" Facebook asks us in gray type. It might as well ask us, "Who do you want to be right now?" As we share articles, essays, borrowed rants, and memes, we are presenting ourselves in new lights. Here I am, we say, and here's something else that's also me. Our friends know a little bit more about us, they think, even when we contribute to the status report only the endorsement "THIS."
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As the play gets started, this tension seems a little flat and programmatic. Any kind of fiction, on stage or page, that poses a "What if...?" reality first has to establish the terms of its invented world. Then, what answers the question — in this case, "What if online fantasy games, including made-up identities and milieus, became so essential to players that they threatened the real world's command?" — can play out. But handling such a chore can feel borderline laborious, despite what eventually flowers under Bryan Fonseca's direction.
Still, I was fascinated by the way the question comes up with answers. That gets into spoiler territory,
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Known as Papa when he's in the Hideaway, Sims maintains that his demented playground, in which the rules of the game contradict his message, is a liberating arena, a test kitchen for the movable feast of human potential. How often does the world thwart our appetite for that? Consistently and unjustifiably, he would argue. Sounding a little like the once fashionable British psychoanalyst R.D. Laing, Sims holds that "our experience of each other is the root of consciousness." For the world to prescribe how we are allowed to experience each other violates our nature, to which only recent technology has given us full access.
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The Phoenix production team has put vivid substance behind the unsettling magic with a set divided between an interrogation room and the Hideaway. The latter is deliberately attractive; the place where revelations occur in the world that sets itself against the Nether is all monochrome, bunker-like efficiency.
If there is a bright side to "The Nether," it's the assurance that a life without consequences is neither possible nor desirable. Something, whether it's rooted in religion or not, will always pull most of us back into linking our thoughts and actions to their results. We are lucky to persist in such a belief, given that so much of life lies outside our control.
Jennifer Haley has avoided preachiness in putting across the difficult beauty of being responsible, even with all the unbounded virtual charisma available to us. The root of consciousness is not some elusive purity of experience that the world keeps blocking. The malleability of personal identity has its limits. Even the imagination has to rest on a foundation of dealing with consequences.
[Photos by Zach Rosing]