By Ryan Ballard
The MCC’s new play “The Nether,” written by Jennifer Haley, offers a chilling outlook on where the Internet may take us. It also encourages us to examine our online habits in terms of what we do and how long we spend doing it.
The main action of the play revolves around an interrogation between agent Morris (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, replacing Merritt Wever) and Sims (Frank Wood), who runs a lifelike online realm called The Hideaway — a Victorian-age inspired virtual reality where he and other users can engage in lewd acts with minors. Sims calls The Hideaway an outlet for his sickness. Agent Morris accuses Sims, or “Papa,” of encouraging others to be sick as well.
Although Merritt Wever gives a well-paced and relatable performance as agent Morris, I have to applaud Quincy Tyler Bernstine for a raw and emotionally varied interpretation, especially considering the last-minute circumstances. As an emergency stand-in for the role, Bernstine joined the cast with very little rehearsal. Buoyed by some incredible acting instincts, she gave a performance so riveting it was easy to forget she was holding a script. From start to finish, Bernstine lived out the infamous “actor’s nightmare” with remarkable grace and control. Frank Wood gave an equally compelling performance alongside both Morrises. As a whole, this small cast packs a punch.
In the world of the play, The Nether — which used to be called the Internet — has become a place in which people attend university, hold jobs, and even choose to live their entire lives as a “shade,” when the user permanently crosses over into The Nether. Agent Morris argues that laws must be enforced in both the real world and The Nether. However, we learn that in her investigation, Morris has engaged in and enjoyed the very acts she aims to prohibit.
Not only does this play make us question where and when the law should become involved in virtual behavior, it also makes us ask whether we might enjoy some of the things we label as sick or unlawful were we given the chance to do them. Even today, the Internet offers a fairly anonymous playground where one can satisfy secret curiosities and even create a virtual persona. In a sense, The Nether is not so far into the future.
Perhaps one of the finest elements of the play is Laura Jellinek’s set design, which gives surprising depth to the Lucille Lortel’s relatively small stage. It establishes a stark contrast between the real world (a squalid, prison-like, windowless interrogation room) and The Nether (a Victorian home featuring pastel walls, elegant finishings, and a lush, green garden.) The set effectively shows that The Nether is perhaps more desirable a place than what has become of our earth.
“The Nether” is not only relevant, but something of a cautionary tale that gives us a potential glimpse of the future that lay in store. Does being able to live beyond the constraints of our bodies brings us closer or further away to the human spirit? Only time will tell, but “The Nether” will certainly make you consider how much of your life you choose to spend online and why.
Ryan Ballard is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.