By Charles Brousse
Question: What’s more frustrating than a puzzle that seems impossible to solve? Answer: A puzzle that is impossible to solve.
That’s how I felt while exiting the San Francisco Playhouse after the Opening Night performance of The Nether, a controversial recent play by Los Angeles-based Jennifer Haley. Playhouse artistic director Bill English (who also staged the current version) brought this curious sci-fi drama here after productions in London and New York were warmly received. It’s easy to see what generated the enthusiasm. Haley’s topic is the threat that evolving technology—in this case, the ability to provide virtual reality (VR) experiences through the Internet—may pose for our species, and she has wrapped the issue inside a suspenseful, at times shocking scenario that includes homosexuality, pedophilia, criminal violence, mental illness and Big Brother-type police overreach. If that isn’t enough to arouse public interest, I don’t know what is.
The San Francisco Playhouse has earned a reputation for high production values and The Nether doesn’t disappoint. To cope with the challenge of a non-linear storyline that requires rapid shifts among four diverse locations (a drab police interrogation room, the Edwardian-style salon where most of the VR action takes place, a bucolic country meadow and a child’s bedroom), designer Nina Ball utilizes an exceptionally effective revolving stage. (These things can be creaky and unreliable, but not this one.) Michael Desch supplies appropriate lighting, although scenes in the claustrophobic interrogation room might have benefited from more contrast shadow. Brooke Jennings’ costumes are spot on, especially the period clothes worn in the turn-of-the-century VR “Hideaway.”
Also in keeping with Playhouse tradition, the acting ensemble is first-rate. Warren David Keith is Sims and Louis Parnell is Doyle, both respectable middle-aged gentleman whose activity on the Internet (called the “nether” in this futuristic setting) has attracted the authorities’ attention. Without being charged with a crime, they’re summoned to police headquarters, where a female Detective Morris (Ruibo Qian) asks them to explain their frequent VR visits to the Hideaway and, in Sims’ case, his interest in underage girls. Successive scenes explore these issues, and in the process, we learn about the dark impulses that lie just beneath the surface of Sims’ and Doyle’s placid exteriors. In addition, we are informed that, as part of their investigation, the police are able to infiltrate an agent named Woodnut (Josh Schell), disguised as a client, into the Hideaway to gather evidence about Sims’ sexual relations with Iris (Matilda Holtz, alternating with Carmen Steele), the pre-teen resident prostitute.
Despite the production’s virtues, I found myself growing increasingly perplexed as The Nether moved through its 80-minute, no-intermission running time. There were so many inexplicable aspects to the story’s central conceit: That the Internet could serve as a portal for individuals to enter a world of virtual reality whenever they wanted, to do whatever they wanted and to be joined there by strangers (including undercover agents) who just popped in on their own volition without being invited by the person who initiated the VR experience.
Aside from technical reservations, it’s hard to know what Haley is trying to say. She seems to be worried about a lot of things, among them growing police surveillance, the adverse effects of repressed sexual drive, societal restrictions on personal behavior and the need to have alternative outlets for free expression—to name a few. All are a part of the unsolvable puzzle that I mentioned at the outset. A glance at New York and London reviews (yes, I used the Internet) reveals that critics in those cities, though complimentary, were similarly confounded. Perhaps we should all just relax and acknowledge that—whether we understand it or not—Haley has written a gripping play that will inspire discussions like this long after it has departed the scene. End of story.
NOW PLAYING The Nether runs through March 5 at the San Francisco Playhouse; 450 Post St., San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.