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Center Theatre Group's 'The Nether' Boldly Tackles Pedophilia—Too Bad It's Unbelievable

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People (including myself) often criticize Center Theatre Group for playing it safe, relying on proven hits imported from Broadway and London instead of taking a chance on original plays. Thus it is only fair when CTG does something original, they should be praised for it, and so I congratulate them for the artistic impulse that led them to produce The Nether, a show with genuinely controversial subject matter. I just wish it were a better play.

In an indeterminate time in the future, internet cop Morris (Jeanne Syquia) is interrogating two men separately. In her era, what the internet has become is called "the Nether," and what goes on there is more controlled. To that end, she questions Sims (Robert Joy), the owner of a private virtual reality site that caters to pedophiles. On his site, paid "guests" can do whatever they want to young Iris (Brighid Fleming), but Sims protests that it's perfectly legal and no real child ever comes to any harm. Morris has received her information from an undercover operative named Woodnut (Adam Haas Hunter), but it's the cagy longtime "guest" of the site, Doyle (Dakin Matthews), that seems crucial to revealing Sims' secrets.

Syquia has the thankless task of delivering much of the piece's exposition, but she's professional and talented enough to pull that off. What ultimately hurts her performance, and that of every other character in the play, is that her character's actions are never credible. Dakin Matthews is one of the best actors in town, but even he can't make Doyle's motivations believable. Joy's role at least has a specific point of view to espouse, which he performs strongly, but the nature of Sims' love story—in some ways the core element of the play—is so deliberately opaque and thinly etched that it leaves Joy with little to present.

Hunter, another great local actor, is given nothing to do but flounder and bumble about, and when his character motivation is more fully revealed, his actions make even less sense. Fleming is terrific, her Iris simultaneously a giddy youth and world-weary slave, giving the one performance that really works and feels like an organic part of the play. However, given the extreme subject matter, one wonders why the producers felt it necessary to cast an actual young teenage girl when an older actress could easily have played younger.

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Director Neel Keller gets professional work from the cast and paces the show effectively, but finally cannot overcome the inherent problems in the script. My guess is that playwright Jennifer Haley wondered what could be done with the societal problem of pedophiles, for whom all treatments seem ineffective. Perhaps she thought of the solution of a virtual reality where they could get out their darkest urges and thus not harm others, but then had second thoughts about that, and the idea for a play was born. This is not at all a bad idea for a work of art, but unfortunately she didn't come up with characters whose motivations made any sense. This is a show where the twists matter, so I won't spoil them by discussing character details. Suffice it to say that I never believed in the reality of these folks for a moment. On the positive side, Adrian W. Jones's turntable two-story Victorian house set is stunning in the best way.

It's only fair to mention that the opening night audience gave The Nether an enthusiastic standing ovation, and the majority of local theatre critics have given it glowing reviews. I spoke to several people at the reception after the performance, and they all said they were initially put off by the subject matter but found themselves drawn in as it proceeded. I had the opposite reaction: I had no problem with the subject matter, but was disappointed by the execution. Your mileage may vary.

"The Nether" plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through April 14. Tickets are available online.