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Review Roundup: THE NETHER Opens Off-Broadway

MCC Theater presents the New York premiere of Jennifer Haley's The Nether directed by Anne Kaufman. The Nether opens tonight, February 24, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Ben Rosenfield, memorably of the final two seasons of "Boardwalk Empire," and rising talent Sophia Anne Caruso take on the roles of Woodnut and Iris, respectively. The Nether also stars "Nurse Jackie" Emmy Award winner Merritt Wever, New York theater veteran Peter Friedman and Tony Award winner Frank Wood.

In The Nether, there is a new immersive realm for the senses online, a virtual playground where those who plug in are coaxed into acting out their darkest fantasies - with no consequences in the "real" world. Or so it seems...until a young female detective begins an investigation to determine if there is a point at which thought or intention may actually constitute a crime within -- and outside of -- this new frontier.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: It's a gray, gray tomorrow that greets us in "The Nether," Jennifer Haley's very cunning and equally creepy new play...bigger questions...are posed, implicitly and explicitly, by "The Nether," which is as smart as it is unsettling. Ms. Haley...has partly fashioned her script as a debate on what constitutes crime in a world of relative realities...What makes "The Nether" of more than academic interest, though, is the sensory life it gives to arguments that pundits have been waging for at least a decade. Every aspect of its design...makes us feel the seductive pull of the Hideaway...We are tainted by complicity, even as we are repelled. And the performances - especially those of Mr. Wood and Mr. Friedman, both superb - further muddle our natural revulsion to people who seek out ghastly erotic thrills..."The Nether" isn't a play for the ages. Its appeal is that of a crafty short story with lurid topical resonance...But as a parable for where we're headed on that big old highway in the digital sky, "The Nether" exerts a viselike grip.

Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press: In a dystopian near-future - is there any other kind predicted, lately? - playwright Jennifer Haley has created a sophisticated detective story set in the world of virtual reality...The chillingly effective production...is well-acted and unnerving. Simplified staging by Anne Kauffman showcases Haley's confidently written conflict between human desires and the right to privacy versus society's need to impose moral limitations, even on fantasy...The plot takes some neat twists and turns, as disturbing personal secrets alter our perceptions. Haley poses thought-provoking concepts about the nature of our modern online lives, and alternative ways to love and interact with one another.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: It takes a lot of doing to put together a boring production of a play about pedophilia. Nonetheless, that's the dubious achievement of MCC's lackluster presentation of "The Nether"...helmer Anne Kauffman's take on this incendiary material is downright dreary...little imagination and less money has gone into realizing a pervert's idea of heaven...More damaging to the scribe's high-minded intentions, the anticipated debate on issues like the insidious power of the internet and the moral consequences of acting out one's darkest fantasies never heats up...Thanks to powerful performances from Wood and Friedman, and some sweet arguments from Caruso, the perverts make an uncomfortably strong case for themselves. But the good guys aren't up to the challenge. Wever is just outclassed by the superior thesps, and Rosenfield is too besotted with the character of Iris to think straight. We're not asking for Detective Benson here (or maybe we are), but nobody on the clean team has a speck of grit.

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: ...The Nether is a thought-provoking depiction of a dystopian future where heinous actions don't have consequences. Or do they?...The play...is both an imaginative thriller and a thoughtful examination of the blurry line between fantasy and reality...Fueled by caustic humor...and hard-to-refute arguments...the play doesn't quite fully succeed in immersing us in its own dark imagination. Its themes are stated a little too baldly, the visual design is drab, and director Anne Kauffman's staging is curiously slack...But it certainly provides much food for thought, and its impact is greatly enhanced by the performances, with especially fine work by Wood, creepily compelling as the twisted cyber-entrepreneur; Friedman, who infuses Doyle with a haunting pathos; Wever, authoritative as the morally outraged detective; and thirteen-year-old Caruso, who handles the disturbing material with precocious elan.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: This MCC production, directed by Anne Kauffman, is handicapped by Wever's uneven performance. She's not entirely convincing as a hardboiled investigator, though she fares better when suggesting Morris' own troubled agenda. Flawed as it is, the show tackles real issues, like how we create different identities on the Web. It also ponders whether online reality could help keep dangerous fantasies under control in real life. Still, when Papa tells Iris the Hideaway provides 'an opportunity to live outside of consequence,' you can't help but shudder.

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Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson

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