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‘The Nether’ raises provocative questions about the dark side of the web

After seeing Area Stage Company’s stellar staging of Los Angeles playwright Jennifer Haley’s provocative sci-fi/crime drama, you might leave the Coral Gables theater wondering if what you saw was real or some especially creative sleight of hand by Haley and director John Rodaz.

Call it a bit of both. The less you know about The Nether — which is about people who spend way too much time on a new, more encompassing version of the Internet — the more enveloping the 80-minute, no-intermission performance feels. Just know that afterward, that comely voice navigating your ride home on your GPS app could lead you to pitch your smartphone out the car window: She’s too close. We’re getting to know each other by name.

The Nether is disturbing, creepy and thought-provoking as we the populace careen headlong into a not-distant world in which the Internet is so much more than a repository of information.

A bit of background and then you’re on your own — and, yes, consider this an enticement to immediately book a night at the regional theater that has the nerve to stage a dark, challenging play, a Florida premiere with a lead Equity actor, with nary a hummable tune or feel-good moment. Instead, there’s a well-placed dig at Disney and taboo subject matters that leave one feeling squeamish and outraged, even though there isn’t a bit of violence or a sexually explicit scene.

The Nether opens in an ashen interrogation room, leached of color and warmth. Two windows, black as shark’s eyes, loom over Detective Morris (Samantha Dagnino) and her prey, a man named Sims (Peter Galman) who slashes the gloom with a wicked blend of sinister sophistication.

“I want to go home,” is the play’s first line, delivered by Sims not as desire but as a command. His desire, in fact, has placed him in this unsettling room. Sims can go home, but if he does he will lose his access to a virtual world he orchestrated where he can experience fantasies in full bloom — tasting, smelling and enjoying whatever one’s mind conjures, be it the pleasures of sex or going Jack Nicholson-in-The Shining on the object of your ardor as afterglow.

“You spend 16 hours a day in The Hideaway,” Morris says of the virtual world Sims created, the most advanced realm of sensation. “What can be served by spending so much time in something that isn’t real?”

“The opportunity to live outside consequence,” Sims explains later to a (willing? real?) participant in the simulacrum of his imagination.

That’s all we’ll say except to add that these 80 minutes will provide fodder for hours of post-theater discussion about the questions Haley’s intelligent script asks.

 “Who are we when we are without consequence?”

 Should “people be free in their imaginations?”

 Is committing and enjoying the unspeakable and criminal OK if it’s visited upon an avatar in cyberspace?

The Nether works because of Area Stage’s tasteful handling of the material. Also, every aspect of scenic artist Jorge Félix’s virtual and “in-world” tantalizes under Rodaz’s tense and deft direction, Jodi Dellaventura’s striking sets, Giancarlo Rodaz’s lighting and Maria Banda-Rodaz’s costumes. The subtle and effective sound design choices, such as twittering birds, suggest Rodaz’s smart command for detail. That’s why Dagnino’s disappointing turn as the would-be hard-boiled detective is so surprisingly askew. Her delivery is all too soft-boiled to convince. Too many of her line readings occur as she reads from a crime log, which comes across as merely reading as opposed to existing in character.

Otherwise, “perfecting this world is my obsession,” Sims says, and that appears to be Area Stage’s obsession as well with this gripping thriller.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen