Welcome to the Nether — a virtual-reality playground of the future. Take on new identities. Shed your fleshly body for eternal virtual life. Or perhaps step into the Hideaway, a Victorian-style cyber mansion whose owner offers you young virtual girls for sex and murder, complete with a country view.
In Theater Emory’s latest production, “The Nether,” showing in the Theater Lab at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts until Nov. 17, you will be transported into a dystopian society similar to those of “Westworld” and “Black Mirror.” A grim rendition of the internet by American playwright Jennifer Haley, whose oeuvre includes Netflix series “Mindhunter,” the play follows an intrepid Detective Morris (Stephanie Escorza) as she investigates the well-encrypted Hideaway. Morris’ interrogation of the Hideaway owner, Sims (Thomas Ward), and a patron, Doyle (Marcus Durham), is interspersed with scenes of life inside the mansion with undercover cop Woodnut (Tsiambwom M. Akuchu), a young girl named Iris (Devon Hales) and Sims (whom Iris calls Papa).
In a place like the Nether, legality isn’t at stake: Iris is an adult man’s avatar, so any interaction in the Hideaway is just consensual adult role play. What’s at stake is ethics. The opening scene carves the ethical battle lines as a cocksure Sims proclaims that the Hideaway protects society from pedophiles like him. Isn’t it better, the play asks, if people gratify their antisocial compulsions in virtual reality instead of hurting others in real life?
It’s a question the play knows we can’t contend without asking bigger questions of the public versus private self. It argues that society is a trade-off where we must tame our aggressions and immediate wants to cooperate with others so that we live longer and better lives. For people with dangerous desires like Sims and his patrons, the Hideaway lets them “live outside of consequence,” as Sims says. Be authentic and monstrous instead of repressed and “good” citizens.
But distilling our authentic self is hardly as simple as reducing it to our innate desires: there are desires that percolate, and then there are desires we act upon. Sims’ tempting vision of selfhood is a narcissistic one where innate desires are static and buried by civic life. Morris rebuts with the crucial counterpoint that desire is pliant, and the self is formed by the ethical choices we make whether consequences exist or not. “Who are we,” asks Morris, “when we interact without consequences?” Even if we wanted to subscribe to Sims’ view of the self, we’d have to navigate the puzzles of authentic identity inside the tellingly named Hideaway: people hide behind avatars, male patrons become young girls, everyone time travels back to the Victorian period and all these selves exist in the plane of virtual rather than actual reality. Selfhood doesn’t come easy.
For all its rich discussion of how fraught the relationship between self and society can be, though, the writing sometimes overstates the philosophical quarrels and overstretches character drama. Despite Escorza, Ward and Durham’s spirited delivery, their characters’ arguments in the interrogation room feel more like dialectic than dialogue at times when the script tries to flesh out opposing ethical positions at the expense of a realistic dynamic between police and suspect. Elsewhere, characters make confessions and outbursts that feel jarring because the play doesn’t show us how emotionally invested the characters are.
On the other hand, Theater Emory’s set design is subtle yet effective. In line with the play’s futuristic tone, the theatrical scenery uses digital projections on automated sliding panels. The interrogation room features bleak lighting and washed-out tones reminiscent of a prison cell. In contrast, the Hideaway is colorful like a fairy tale — nude pink walls, burgundy jackets, gold coat detailing and sun-splashed greenery dotted by flowers and birds. The wicked mansion is made seductive like the narcissistic self it celebrates, offering characters a capacious place to roam as free selves unlike the tight interrogation room of public selves, a tiny rotating platform at stage center. And here comes the set designers’ deft whispers against seduction: the digitally conjured Hideaway is just a little flatter than three-dimensional, and lines of code swirl on the panels during scene changes to expose its fiction. These electric dreams, no matter how lush, how intimate, how freeing, are ultimately artifice.
Occasionally hampered by the script’s melodrama, “The Nether” succeeds most when it gazes at our vexed selves in a world of other people with online lives. At its best, it leaps past ethics and selfhood toward the difficulty of intimacy. In a less egregious case than pedophilia, how hard is intimacy, that act of suspending our publicly acceptable selves to let our authentic self come before another’s eyes? While indicting Sims’ predatory form of intimacy, “The Nether” asks what it means to truly know and be known by someone else among screens and avatars.