This review of Jennifer Haley's The Nether at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Joe Rubino
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
This play takes you into a dystopian future where there are very few beautiful things left to experience in the "real world." However, the sights, sounds, and smells of the Old Victorian Era, or any era, can be experienced through The Nether, an enhanced virtual reality, that, for a price, can enable you to visit, or live, in this alternative universe. Some people have chosen to "cross over" placing their bodies on life support and living full-time in an alternate reality of their choice. These individuals are called "Shades." They live out their lives as characters created in the virtual reality universe. The settings can be elaborate or as simple as an arm-chair set near a fireplace making for a cozy atmosphere to be able to read books or poems uninterrupted by other human beings or by the darkness that has befallen the earth where a real garden has become a prized possession and where all students now get their degrees by studying online.
Only adults can consent to enter certain parts of The Nether, where there is no limit to the choice of characters they can embody. Are you a grossly overweight elderly man? In The Nether, you can be a twenty-one-year-old super stud or an 18-year old female model. Perhaps you would like to be a 12-year-old girl or a successful businessman. Would you like to be in a simulation where you are fighting for your life and are in a kill-or-be-killed situation? That option is available and if your character gets killed - fear not - it will regenerate in a few seconds and you're back in business. In The Nether, no one knows your true identity so others will interact with your chosen character without questioning who is the man or woman behind the character that day. In fact, in certain games, a number of individuals may play the same character at different times. It's all up to you and the game designer. In addition, what may be illegal in the real world is permissible in The Nether. Fantasies and fetishes of all sorts can be experienced by those who have chosen to become engaged in said situations. Adult consent is required in all circumstances and those who play a character who is sexually assaulted or raped has specifically made the decision to see what it feels like to be the subject of such an encounter. No Harm. No Foul.
But herein enters the morality police who believe "there should be a line - even in our own imagination." A new online congress of participating game-players has organized to start targeting and shutting down simulations they find offensive. It's the age-old argument all over again. Should rational adults be permitted to do as they please so long as they do not directly harm others, or does the state have an interest in punishing deviant behavior and guiding you to live and think in a manner that will promote good manners, strong families, and a productive workforce? In The Nether, a real-life pedophile has created a virtual reality called The Hideaway where other pedophiles, who might have otherwise assaulted real children, can act out their fantasies without harm or consequence. The investigating detective, intent on finding the location of Papa's server, visits the netherworld and finds herself curiously addicted to the point where she admits she never wanted to leave. That doesn't stop her from threatening the participants, shutting down the simulation, and freeing the pedophiles to find real prey in the real world, "even though given children's addiction to the internet, very few girls and boys play on the street anymore." Yes, that was one of Papa's jokes. But it's not a joke that an ever expanding bureaucracy would find its way to regulating every aspect of the internet pushing a puritanical agenda bent on controlling one's thoughts and fantasies.
The shame and self-loathing expressed by the pedophiles in this play reminded me of the self-hatred homosexuals had for their own deviant behavior in decades past. If I like men instead of women, God must have made a mistake. Perhaps I was intended to have been born a woman. Gay pride was unthinkable and the only people "out" were those too flamboyant to remain hidden in a closet. It might be pushing it to call pedophilia a "sexual orientation" but it is certainly learned behavior that has become a fetish. A psychologist might say the man or woman has not fully matured or advanced to leaving childhood fantasies behind, but for some people that isn't easy. During puberty, teenage boys and girls find sexual pleasure fantasizing and thinking about others boys and girls their age that they would like to be with. Those thoughts are reinforced through masturbation and for many of these boys and girls, they never lose that attraction to teenagers when they become adults. That is why older men like younger women and some cougars prefer younger men. These individuals are not sick or depraved, except in the eyes of current societal norms. There may even be a genetic component involved when older men are attracted to younger women who can bear them healthier offspring. You may also want to take into consideration that for tens of thousands of years, our ancestors tended not to live past 30 and that the onset of puberty was a signal that a young man or young woman was ready to reproduce.
In my opinion, the playwright got it wrong when she combined the fantasy of a pedophile to bond and perhaps sleep with younger people with their alleged desire to murder them. What the playwright doesn't understand is that pedophiles only kill their prey because they can never trust that they won't talk and turn them into the police when confronted by their parents or a caregiver. If there was no chance of being caught, there would be no need to murder them. The worst that would happen over time is that the pedophile would lose interest as the child gets older. Another point that should be made is that if the relationship is consensual, in that it doesn't involve physical force, the bulk of the psychological trauma takes place after the relationship is exposed. When two consenting adults are role-playing in a virtual reality universe, even if force is used, the possibility of psychological trauma is almost non-existent since the participant, if he doesn't like the experience, can simply choose not to return to that game. The victim never loses control in The Hideaway.
All of these issues and many others are addressed in The Nether. The cast, which includes Chris Cardona (Sims/Papa), Frank Danko (Cedric Doyle), Jesse Lyons (Woodnut), Elizabetta Malagon (Iris), and Nikki Silva (Morris) is very strong. John Dzienius deserves special credit for the set design. Whatever your opinions may be on the topics raised, I guarantee The Nether will give you something to talk about and will make a strong impression on you. As you contemplate the future, you may wish to keep this quotation in mind, "Just because it's virtual, doesn't mean it's not real."