Los Angeles Theater Review: THE NETHER (Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City)

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by Tony Frankel on March 26, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, right? Not anymore. It’s fascinating that the World English Dictionary defines reality as “the state of things as they are or appear to be, rather than as one might wish them to be.” As they appear to be. Are we to take that as something which appears to be real is real? Is the deviously contrived realm of Reality TV actually real even though it’s fake? While Nietzsche and Kant quibbled over the veracity of what is right before our eyes, no one denied that the opposite of real is imaginary, but our technology-dominated age is changing all that. Although Stoppard and Ayckbourn have twisted and warped reality to tell their dramas, rare is the new play which examines the encroaching reality that reality is no longer a reality.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema LA review of The Nether at Kirk Douglas TheatreJennifer Haley’s new play The Nether offers a compelling diatribe for the modern age: Have “Alternate Reality,” “Virtual Reality,” and “Reality TV” altered the very definition of reality? If we could actually sense and feel a phony existence via a computer-generated world of make-believe, is it real? Haley has already tackled the same subject in the Rod Serling-esque Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom (reviewed in Chicago). In Doom, teens addicted to a violent Xbox video game discover that a zombie invasion actually occurs in their own neighborhood when they play the game.

“The Nether” is the future internet, a place where a sophisticated alternate reality is quickly replacing the real world. In the play, a female detective is investigating a site which depicts an idyllic Victorian-era manse inhabited by a nine-year-old girl and her “Papa.” All senses are acute in this world; visitors can hear the Victrola, feel the sunshine, and see the poplar trees. Yet beneath the bucolic setting, something far more insidious is happening.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema LA review of The Nether at Kirk Douglas TheatreHaley’s reveals and surprises are fun; her audacious and daring subject matter is thrilling (for me, the more shocking, the better); and her articulation of a not-too-distant, speculative Asimovian world is fascinating. Analyzers, and mystery- and Science Fiction-lovers will no doubt get a kick out of the many postulations introduced as characters act out compulsive behavior in a virtual world online. Issues of ethics, thought control, privacy, computer addiction and more will likely be discussed post-viewing.

I enjoyed myself immensely watching the show, even though something wasn’t right. Based on Neighborhood 3 and The Nether, I can assert that Haley’s thought-provoking plays are extraordinarily clever and intriguing, but they do not shatter or resonate, even with a satisfying and breathtaking reveal or two. The Nether, especially, is a Play of Ideas, in which an argument about a particular subject is used alongside (or instead of) plot as a tool for dramatic structure.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema LA review of The Nether at Kirk Douglas TheatreCertainly I wished it was more suspenseful, but in a spirited post-show conversation in the Kirk Douglas Theatre lobby, I overheard patrons attempting to put their finger on what was missing. One patron believed it was the acting that was askew. Another claimed it was director Neel Keller, since some of L.A.’s best thespians were on stage. I believe the problem is in the play, where simplistic characters with minimal and/or clichéd backstories are used as devices to thrust Haley’s ideas about technology to the fore.

Some of the actors seemed unconvincing because they were not given rich, three-dimensional portraitures to work with (even the simplest Agatha Christie mysteries contained distinctive people with idiosyncratic qualities). Jeanne Syquia as the detective is an example where Mr. Keller could have helped – she came off like a reprimanding elementary school principal instead of a scary, tough-as-nails interrogator. When you have both actress and character lacking distinction, no amount of waterworks towards play’s end will move the audience.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema LA review of The Nether at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Dakin Matthews, who plays a man called in for questioning, could read from a menu and I would wash his feet with rose water; it is always an honor to witness such mesmerizing internal machinery. Robert Joy and the entrancing Adam Haas Hunter equally find moments not necessarily supplied by the author. The 13-year-old unassuming and somewhat plaintive Brighid Fleming plays the nine-year-old Virtual Victorian girl, but it is her off stage parents whose bravery I must commend (no more shall be said; you must attend yourself to see why).

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema LA review of The Nether at Kirk Douglas TheatreIt was wholly refreshing that a play about technology did not use multi-media to make its point. Adrian W. Jones’ remarkable turntable set had the interrogation room in a drab shadowbox beneath a Victorian attic bedroom; the set would turn to reveal a front porch and then a parlor with its staircase leading to the nefarious activity at the center of this promising endeavor.

This is exactly the type of play that Center Theatre Group should workshop, and I’m glad and enormously proud that they did. It really is marvelous in many ways, and Haley’s commentary and intuition are headed in the direction of the darker, satiric side of Paddy Chayefsky’s later works; it is important to remember, however, that the master who wrote Altered States cut his teeth on character-driven dramas first. I declare that this play could one day be enormously effective. I wish that Haley – indeed, most modern playwrights – would return to a two-act structure as a way of fleshing out a story, because that’s exactly what The Nether needs. Furthermore, artistic directors and producers need to stop encouraging 90-minute intermissionless plays; it’s bullshit to think that audiences have no attention span. Plays like The Nether are stretched-out 22-minute Twilight Zone episodes. These shorter works are most definitely not serving to improve the state of playwriting in America – but that’s another nether story.

photos by Craig Schwartz

The Nether
Center Theatre Group
Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City
ends on April 14, 2013
for tickets, call 213. 628. 6772 or visit CTG

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