Image that you live part time in real time, and part time in virtual reality time. Image that all your wishes from one could turn into fait accompli in the other. Of your fantasies, which are morally right? Can anything go?

This is the main question posed by Jennifer Haley in her drama “The Nether” now playing at the San Francisco Playhouse. It has played in Los Angeles and New York as well as internationally. It raises the moral questions about the Internet that Google and other big names do not want to face—What to do about child pornography being the big question.

With a cast of five terrific actors, the play is about a process taking place where Sims (Warren David Keith) faces Morris, (Ruibo Qian) a tough, woman interrogator in a claustrophobic office. She questions his life, his activities, and his proclivities in The Nether, a virtual world made possible by the Internet.

He answers her standard questions: married, children, etc.? He answers, “Yes to the first one and no to the second.” No children? That sets off a round of further questions for apparently Sims is called Pappa and has a family living in a beautiful Victorian house unlike the plain one he describes as his real house.

Sims has created a world in this lovely house, the hide-away, with an engaging prepubescent Iris (Carmen Steele) where he lives an alternate virtual life as Pappa. Morris also questions Doyle (Louis Parness), a retired teacher of physics, for he knows about Sims’ business, a virtual realty Internet game.

The Victorian House is a masterful stroke of scene design by Nina Ball. Here is an Alice in Wonderland world with a girl’s bedroom looking like it came out Pottery Barn Kids with its warmth of a pink walls and bedspread dotted with stuffed animals and other girly stuff well lit by Michael Oesch. Nina Ball’s design has made the room small and out of scale so that Iris appears larger and the men that visit her very large.

In a flouncy old-fashion dress like Alice (costumes by Brooke Jenningsj), Iris charms her male visitor Woodnut (Josh ShellI) and they play games that Iris teaches him. I won’t tell you who Woodnut is as that is one of the “secrets” that are floated in the play to be discovered by the actors as well as the audience.

There are so many twists and turns in the plot, so many mysterious connections and happenings, that you will feel you are spinning at times as you go from the real stage world to the virtual.

Carmen Steele as Iris shares her part with Matilda Holtz on alternate performances. In real life Steele is in the 6th grade and Holtz 8th grade. Wow! Hollywood and Broadway stars move over.

Bill English as director and his daughter Lauren as casting director deserve a bow, for each of these five actors fitting hand-in-glove into varied roles and their interpretations.

Expect lots of surprises, stay wide awake and enjoy this terse and tense 80-minute play without an intermission. You’ll have lots to talk about on your ride home.

“The Nether” by Jennifer Haley runs through March 5 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, 2nd floor of The Kensington Hotel, S.F. 415 677 9596 or go online.
© Carol Benet 2016
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.

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