Stars of The Nether Explore Dark Fantasies in Mysterious Virtual World

News   Stars of The Nether Explore Dark Fantasies in Mysterious Virtual World
MCC's New York premiere of Jennifer Haley's The Nether is somewhat shrouded in mystery. The haunting whodunit, which has previously played on London's West End and in Los Angeles, CA, taps into some of the most urgent and disturbing issues of our time: the ethics of the online world and child abuse. Stars Merritt Wever ("Nurse Jackie") and Sophia Anne Caruso (NBC's "The Sound of Music") offer a few hints as to what theatregoers can expect when entering the unknown realm of the nether. 


In Jennifer Haley's The Nether, there exists an immersive online domain for the senses where those who "plug in" can act out their darkest fantasies, with no consequences in the "real world." When this virtual playground is used as a paradise for pedophiles, young detective Morris (Wever) begins to question the blurred lines between reality and cyber existence. Through her investigation, the play explores the point at which thoughts or intention constitute a crime.

Ben Rosenfield and Sophia Anne Caruso
Ben Rosenfield and Sophia Anne Caruso Photo by Jenny Anderson

This isn't the first of Haley's works to explore the ethics of virtual reality. Her fascination with this theme may be explained by her 13 years working as a web designer while supporting herself as a writer. "What are some of the worst things you could do online?" the playwright found herself asking, "and what if it's a virtual reality that's very life-like, so the argument would be that if it's just like life, why shouldn't the same ethical rules apply?"

Wever's character, who approaches these questions very rigidly at first, is forced to re-examine those ideals when crossing into the new frontier of the online world. Emmy Award winner Wever, who is returning to the stage for the first time in two years, admits that she was initially daunted by the story. "Everyone says you're supposed to go towards what you're afraid of," she says, "so I went towards The Nether."

Perhaps the play is most confronting because it raises questions that seem so relevant to present-day audiences. The Nether is set in an undefined future, but in the MCC production, the story takes place between 10 and 20 years from today. "It was important for us to not displace it so far forward," says director Anne Kauffman, adding that it be a "recognizable world." This makes the show feel all the more relevant. "I think the questions, the problems and the ideas that the content is dealing with are really pretty vital to where we are now as a culture when it comes to things like the Internet and living your life," adds Weaver. "Can we police people for what they might do? I think that's a question we've been grappling with for a long time," says Haley. "Technology has given people the means to be very specific about living out their imaginations no matter how dark those are – now that they have the tools to interact with other people who have the same visions and dreams, is that dangerous? Or is it freedom?"

For Kauffman, the play is ultimately about the discovery of human identity, however dark that may turn out to be. "How do we govern ourselves when there is this much freedom and there are no physical barriers?" she asks. "What we discover is the freedom we have to be who we always wanted to be and maybe never knew we were." This is what makes The Nether such compelling viewing. "I think it's always fascinating, especially if you're not living out your darkest fantasies," says Haley. "We're interested in deviant behavior but we don't necessarily want to practice it ourselves or have it practiced upon us. Storytelling is a perfect way to explore it."

Frank Wood and Merritt Wever
Frank Wood and Merritt Wever Photo by Jenny Anderson

If any theatregoers were concerned for the well-being of 14-year-old star Sophia Anne Caruso in the production, they needn't. "I feel very comfortable with the actors and confident with our director," she says. Caruso says she was intrigued by the play, particularly as an adolescent who has grown up with the Internet and the rapid development of technology. "I think in the future these things are going to grow, if they're not already issues," she says. 

The play offers a disturbing analysis of the ways in which technology can impact our human relationships and identity.  For Weaver, The Nether explores the very real consequences of "having your social connections and personal relationships played out more and more online as opposed to in person and what that's going to do to people's relationships with each other," she says.

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