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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Conceptually The Nether, Los Angeles playwright Jennifer Haley's world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theater, is seductive.

The world she crafts in this sci-fi interrogation drama is a sort of inverted Matrix: where the illusions, or 'realms' are coded by users and people are tempted to plug in rather than 'pull the plug.' We're in the not too distant dystopian future. It's a cold grey fluorescent world sapped of color and seemingly all human warmth. There aren't many trees left, sunlight is a rare commodity and some people spend a lot of time online - like 16 hours a day. This isn't the internet, it's a virtual immersive reality or a "contextual framework for being" called "The Nether" run by a Google-like overlord that would make George Orwell shudder. It's easy to see why people would try and escape to one of the 'realms.'

One of the most popular and most sophisticated is a Victorian playground of sorts called "The Hideaway". Meticulously coded wood paneling, lace curtains, velvet smoking jackets, poplars in the front yard, a garden of snap peas in the back. Sounds lovely right?

The trouble is ... well it's a bordello and even more shocking, at least that's the intent, is the 'professionals' in question are little girls ... or that's what they appear to be to the 'guests' - as the pedophiles are so genteelly called.

While we begin interrogating an alleged hacker/pedophile, what the play is really questioning, on the surface, is censorship and the slippery nature of identity and morality in a plugged in socially networked world.

Now, this is a beautifully designed and imagined production. Set designer Adrian Jones and LA lighting designer Christopher Kuhl create a world that's as immersive and complicated as the ideas being debated. The production excels where most sci-fi theater fails - in realizing the world. But when it comes to peering into souls, the production isn't quite as lucky.

When we've finally unraveled the story and discovered who's who and how they got here - we're left with the flesh and blood: with people confronting love and loneliness and betrayal. "The Nether" is oddly really a play about the challenges of family: theater's strong suit. Unfortunately, this is just where the writing is at its leanest. As the revelations begin and the hearts and souls are finally laid bare we're left wanting more and wondering why. There are major reversals that feel unsupported by both the acting and the script. So for all it's engaging setup The Nether lacks the emotional punch it deserves.

But it's a world premiere at Center Theater Group, of an LA playwright with several LA designers and actors, and its a play about complicated ideas. That's something to celebrate and to go see.

The Nether plays at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through April 14.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes without an intermission.


Banner image: Dakin Matthews and Jeanne Syquia in the world premiere of The Nether at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz

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