The hardest moment in Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether comes early on, when a very young girl is discovered in a bedroom with an older man. She pulls her dress up over her head, revealing Victorian-era undergarments and pantaloons. End scene. Though whatever ensues happens offstage, the implication is unsettling.
“It’s the worst moment for everyone,” says playwright Haley, describing how during the play’s premiere run at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, she would notice audience members squirming in their seats in response to the scene, played by a 13-year-old actress. “If you get them past that moment, it’s fine.”
Indeed, audiences are regularly managing to get past that moment. Following The Nether’s 2013 run in Los Angeles, it traveled to the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2014; this month, it’s playing simultaneously on the West End (through Apr. 16) and at MCC Theater in New York City (Feb. 4-Mar. 15).
The procedural-like play (inspired, Haley says, by watching too many episodes of “CSI”) follows a detective who is determined to take down an online community of people posing as children and the pedophiles who love them. In the play, users hook into that community much the way it’s done in The Matrix films, with their consciousness occupying a virtual body.
The Nether (which won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for women writers in 2012) continues a strand that Haley explored in her 2008 play Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom—namely, how human interactions are changing in the face of technology and increasingly realistic video games. “The danger is not with content,” Haley proposes. “The danger lies more in spending so much time online that you neglect having a life and relationships in the real world. We spend so much time online we just don’t care. The world is falling apart and we can’t be bothered.”
Haley is not trying to demonize technology—after all, she spent 13 years as a web designer, and her ideal vacation would include playing World of Warcraft. “During Prohibition, liquor was evil—but it’s not evil, it’s all what we do with it,” she says by way of illustration. “We get technology and we don’t necessarily do anything with it but play out our own neuroses. We turn to it to run away from ourselves.”
Virtual reality has been a fruitful topic for Haley. Besides seeing The Nether on both sides of the Atlantic, she is currently developing a new play with CTG and American Conservatory Theater titled Froggy, about a woman who travels through a video-game universe looking for her boyfriend. To Haley, role-playing games and theatre have more in common that one would think. “The very foundation of theatre is actors letting a new personality infiltrate their body—they put an avatar onstage,” she posits. “When people go online and play different characters, it becomes theatre. They’re living out other stories.”