In the program to “The Nether,” a thought-provoking drama that is being presented by the Centenary Stage Company at the Sitnik Theater of the Lackland Center in Hackettstown through Oct. 25, the time of the play is described as “Soon.” And that might be the most chilling about it.
For “The Nether,” a 2013 work by Los Angeles-based playwright Jennifer Haley, depicts an ominous world that doesn’t exist yet, but that doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility, either.
The Nether, in this play, is a place, not unlike the Internet, where people can lose themselves for hours at a time. The difference is that in the play, technology has progressed to a point where you really feel like you’re in another world when you surf the net. And it’s even possible to leave your actual body and exist only in The Nether.
All this leads to a huge moral question: Should people who choose to spend their time in this real/unreal world follow the same moral code as the one that exists in our regular old three-dimensional one?
In the play, Papa (played by Craig MacDonald) is a rich businessman who has constructed his own little corner of The Nether, called the Hideaway, where pedophiles can indulge their every whim. He claims that no actual children are allowed there, but adults can take the form of children, if they wish to. No one is being harmed, Papa argues, adding that some good may actually come of it, since people will be less likely to act out their sexual and violent urges in real life if they have this virtual outlet.
Morris (Erica Knight), a Nether detective who is interrogating Papa, isn’t buying it. In fact, she verbally assaults him with the fervor of a crusader, though the calm, cagey cyber-entrepreneur is reluctant to share any details of his operation.
That’s just one part of the play, though. In other scenes, we visit the Hideaway itself, and see Papa there, along with a client, Woodnut (Christopher J. Young), and a young girl, Iris (Olivia Mancuso), whose form another adult has chosen to inhabit. And there are also scenes in which Morris interrogates Doyle (Peter Levine), a teacher who seems to have some knowledge about what goes on in the Hideaway.
The ingenious stage design — by Bob Phillips, who has worked with the Centenary Stage Company many times before, and who took this on as his last project before retiring — features four rooms that fit together like components of a diorama. One is the interrogation room, but we also see parts of the Hideaway, which look like the ornately furnished rooms of a rich man’s mansion at first glance, but also have odd touches, like doors whose sides are not at right angles to each other. In The Nether, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules.
As directed by Carl Wallnau, the play is, intentionally, a discomforting experience. Papa and Doyle seems a bit creepy, even when they’re playing innocent. Morris practically yells her lines, attempting to unsettle the unflappable Papa.
And Iris is played by a seventh-grader. Needless to say, there’s no sex or violence in the play, but it’s hard to watch her in the midst of these unsavory characters without wincing.
In other words, watching the play is not the most pleasant experience. But Haley is more interested in making you think than in entertaining you, and that’s what makes “The Nether” an important play. And, sadly, a play that may become more important in the years to come.
For ticket information, visit centenarystageco.org. (On Oct. 15 and 18, there will be talkbacks with the show’s cast and creative team, and Haley will attend the final performance, on Oct. 25.)