It’s a fortunate coincidence for local audiences that two extraordinary plays about the same difficult topic have opened in as many days.
At Subversive Theatre, Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” looks at the sexual abuse of a minor through the lens of its survivor, a grown woman reaching toward healing, catharsis by memory.
At Road Less Traveled, where Jennifer Haley’s “The Nether” opened Friday night, we visit a near-future reality in which the internet has been replaced by a virtual reality playground. In it, sexual criminals are the ones who feel healed, as they can envision their urges instead of acting on them.
The real reality, of course, is that this kind of internet experience is already viable. We are already in the Nether.
Haley studied playwriting under Vogel, which may or may not be apparent on stage. But with both productions currently at your disposal, and amid a much larger national conversation about sexual assault, privacy and internet access, this is a prime opportunity to seize. Make “The Nether” your priority, as this is a unique production.
Katie Mallinson gives an another incredible turn as director and all-encompassing visionary here. Her frequent work as a dramaturg, exploring a play’s layers of text, subtext and context, is obvious in her directorial work. She understands Haley’s play so completely, and creates a special world in which it can exist without limitation or fear.
Road Less Traveled being the innovative company that they are, visual and sound design are given ample room to build. The physical is so important to the play’s many virtual-world scenes; this is where fiction becomes truth, and the imagined becomes consequential.
Dyan Burlingame’s finely decorated set and John Rickus’s evocative lighting are Kubrickian, both comforting and eerie. Eric Burlingame’s surround-sound design drops the floor from underneath our feet. In one fell swoop, we are transported down a dark hole.
Mallinson has an incredible ensemble at her disposal. They play isolated, painfully alone characters, everyone out on their own limb. Their actors connect to each other carefully, entrenched in paranoia as the literal and imaginary worlds begin to crumble.
Eve Everette is piercingly good as Morris, an officer of The Nether’s investigative arm. Everette even feels a little computerized. Steve Jakiel and Dave Marciniak give beautifully normal performances of abnormal men, not an easy task. Jakiel is particularly steady here, serving double duty as antidote to this surrealism and a setup for his character’s curveball revelation. Marciniak is especially captivating as a Nether user on the edge of a total breakdown. Some of his best line readings are those without words. What a pleasure it is to have him back on Buffalo’s boards, too.
As avatars in the Nether, Patrick Cameron and Sabrina Kahwaty embody the confused, flawed mechanical facets of a constructed human being. Kahwaty is a lost Grady Twin in her knee-length gown. Try not to have flashbacks of the Overlook Hotel.
I hesitate to give too much more away. This is an engrossing, shocking, uncomfortable tale, that only grows more prescient the more you fall into it. Like the show “Black Mirror,” it turns what we used to call “science fiction” into something much more confronting: “modern nonfiction.”
4 stars (out of four)
“The Nether” by Jennifer Haley
Road Less Traveled Productions
500 Pearl St., Buffalo, NY 14202
Runs through Feb. 11, Thurs. - Sat. at 7:30 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m.
Tickets are available online and at the box office. $35 general admission, $20 students