Around the halfway point of Jennifer Haley’s brisk 80-minute play The Nether, one of the characters recites a few lines from the Theodore Roethke poem “In a Dark Time”: “Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire./My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,/Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?”. The narrative hinges on the question “Which I is I?” and provides an unsettling answer to it.
The Nether is set in an unspecified future in which the internet exists as an alternate, entirely habitable universe. Logging into a computer is equivalent to jumping into “The Bewitchin' Pool,” like that episode of The Twilight Zone where the deep end is a portal to a happier realm. The unhappy realm where the first scene begins is a holding cell inside of an iron gray prison. A police officer, spruced up in black leather a la RoboCop, is accusing someone’s cardigan-wearing grandfather, known as Sims and Papa, of some dark deed.
Before we fully understand why he’s being held, the scene fades to black and the lights flood open onto a different man named Doyle, also older, in the same cell. As the questioning continues, it becomes clear that both men are connected to one specific place in the Nether: the Hideaway. This fantasy place, it turns out, is a pedophile’s dream. The men haven’t committed any crimes per se but they’re in trouble for actively engaging in thoughtcrimes, not unlike the ones in 1984 or Minority Report (2002).
The law in this case is taking a proactive stance against their online role play where they can shape-shift and take pleasure in their lurid, basest, most unfulfilled set of desires. The playwright here frames the argument for freedom of thought, and its private expression, at its most extreme ends — not only is pedophilia on deck but also murder. Does it matter that these crimes only occur online? Is that the realm the “I” should be tolerated and encouraged to work out its neuroses and perversions?
Therein lies the problem with dramatizing the argument this way. Papa pleads with the officer claiming that this cyber fantasy life prevents him from doing harm in real life. The actor who plays him, Warren David Keith, is astonishingly sympathetic as the mastermind behind the Hideaway. It takes enormous skill for an actor to convince the audience that his disturbing inner life deserves some measure of tolerance, if not acceptance. As Doyle, Louis Parnell also earns our sympathy. They play men who are psychologically incapable of maturing and holding adult connection: they refuse to grow up.
The strength of their performances throws the production off balance. The officer’s backstory, the detective work that leads to their imprisonment, is compelling but doesn’t feel lived in or deeply felt. The audience is then stranded: We can’t identify with pedophiles and murderers, so what’s left? A queasy feeling after being witnesses to such distasteful vulnerability. In the end, the case for limitless freedom of thought is being made on the wrong grounds. The Nether declines to condemn those who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. This is a commendable stance for artistic creation, but questionable for (potential) rapists and killers in need of preventive care and counsel. For those who do know which I is I, whatever virtual life is named — the Nether, the Hideaway, the Matrix — our shared moral universe exists there too.
The Nether, through Mar. 5 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post, 415-677-9596.