The Nether Through March 13; Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; $16-$20. Art Square Theatre, 702-818-3422.
Jennifer Haley is a master of twisting modern life a quarter turn and exposing its awful dread. Her latest, The Nether, turns its gaze on the Internet. This tense, genuinely upsetting play receives a masterful production from Cockroach Theatre that—even though it’s only March—just might be the best show of the year.
The tech is futuristic, but the plot borrows from one of the original theatrical scripts: Like Oedipus, Morris (Jamie Carvelli) must solve a crime and stop the moral rot in her kingdom, an evolution of the Internet called “the Nether.” Her team has suspicions of horrific acts being committed in an online realm run by Sims (Scott McAdam) but lacks the technical resources to confirm the crimes. As far as Sims is concerned, it also lacks any moral grounds for convicting him, as the crimes are virtual and, perhaps, serve a good cause.
Carvelli is relentless as the inspector charged with figuring out exactly what happens in Sims’ world. As her hard-bitten exterior gradually cracks, revealing how the case has taken its toll, her insistence and stubbornness become layered with affection and confusion. Carvelli is often cast as a sexual victim, and it’s rewarding to see her flip that trope on its head, exhibiting a fierce agency and genuine anguish.
As Sims, McAdam is wonderfully creepy, fighting hard for what he knows sounds like a disgusting freedom, hiding behind platitudes to protect his own fear. The only detriment of this show is that sometimes both his and Carvelli’s drives devolve into presentational posturing, flattening some of their conflict.
But no one comes out of this play without wounds, and the rest of the ensemble—Doyle (Bob Gratrix), Iris (Aviana Glover) and Woodnut (Brandon McClenahan)—are excellent.
Brian Henry’s geometric projection design is the perfect counterpoint to Shannon Bradley’s multi-faceted set, lush with Stacia Zinkevich’s and TJ Larsen’s props. Kim Glover’s costumes convey period and character with cool fillips. Aaron Guidry’s score is phenomenal, but mixed a little forward at times by Benton Corder. While it worked marvelously overall, I wonder if the prominence of the music dictated a little too much of the actors’ emotional tenor, not providing the room with what they needed to chart the arc of a scene.
Even though it’s a play about a virtual world, an abstraction of an abstraction, the emotional stakes couldn’t be more keenly felt. This is not for the squeamish, easily offended or faint of heart—because this show will stomp all over yours.