Credit: Handout photo by Scott Suchman

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It has been more than a decade since the web comic Penny Arcade coined the “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory,” which posits that anonymous online communication turns an otherwise ordinary person into an ugly, amoral husk. In The Nether, playwright Jennifer Haley takes that idea and exaggerates it beyond any comfortable sense of morality, combining multiple planes of reality with a reliable procedural framework. The cerebral twists land with the inevitably of a sharply defined thriller.

Woolly Mammoth is no stranger to challenging plays, so the quality of the acting and production matches Haley’s ambitious ideas. Two actors appear on stage, where a claustrophobic glass box limits their space. The scene is an interrogation: A detective named Morris (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) interrogates Sims (Edward Gero), needling him with questions about The Hideaway, a beautifully rendered virtual community he maintains as his alter-ego “Papa.” The Hideaway has an unseemly purpose. Adult guests interact with avatars that look like children, and there are no consequences to whatever sexual and violent conduct in which they might engage.

Haley jumps from the flesh-and-blood interrogation to The Hideaway, where the virtual girl Iris (Maya Brettell) converses with her client Woodnut (Tim Getman) and Papa himself. By doubling back between the real and virtual world, Haley obliterates our ideas of identity until what’s left is more haunting than poignant.

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Director Shana Cooper only keeps the glass box on stage for a short while. Most of The Nether is austere and has few props; costumes and lighting design differentiate between the drab real world and the vibrant Hideaway. The effect is similar to The Matrix, both in terms of aesthetics and the questions raised. Like the best science fiction, Haley uses jargon to build her world in the audience’s imagination. Still, some of the best lines land with a dark sense of irony. There is a serious discussion about the merit of sex with an elf, for example, as if online experiences are the only true freedom left.

Since characters discuss simulated sex and murder, The Nether could have been brutal to a fault. But Haley and Cooper prefer suggestion over violent Grand Guignol displays. The characters talk around their online behavior, with a mix of mutual cognitive dissonance and a yearning for acceptance. Iris is essentially a plaything for base desires, and Brettell gives her an unsettling, infantilized voice. Forced intimacy defines her scenes with Woodnut/Papa; the irony, of course, is that Haley’s conceit forces us to watch flesh-and-blood actors perform as virtual avatars.

If Bretell’s childlike cadence represents the false promise of The Hideaway, Fernandez-Coffey’s harsher, adult voice is the bracing kick back to reality. Her forceful interrogations are unnerving: It would be terrible to have our clicks and searches scrutinized, and it would be even worse if we used the Internet for escape. So when Haley inevitably dovetails the real and virtual worlds, the cumulative effect engenders unexpected empathy.

Throughout The Nether, Sims justifies a community maintained for pedophiles. He notes that The Hideaway helps him suppress his darkest impulses, and that by containing like-minded people, there is less danger for actual children. His argument is not so simple, and neither is Morris’, since she wants to dismantle the community entirely. Haley’s dialogue, literate and full of insinuations, considers the psychological impacts of a consequence-free fantasy and how that creates a hollow, malformed sense of purpose. The Nether doesn’t take sides, but serves as an elegy for the vulnerability and value of real-world adult relationships. People currently spend hours each day with role-playing games and massive online worlds. If the comfort of virtual reality is inevitable, then The Nether is a ruthless warning against immersion.

641 D St. NW. $20–$73. (202) 289-2443. woollymammoth.net.