Aisle View: The Other Place and a Modern/Classic Bloodbath

Ben Rosenfield and Sophia Anne Caruso in Jennifer Haley's The Nether.
Photo: Jenny Anderson

The nether realm, as constructed in Jennifer Haley's eighty-minute drama The Nether at MCC, is a demon world of evil and imagination. At least, one hopes it's imagination, as the realm in question is--well, here I think I need spill the beans, so if you don't want the beans spilled don't read on although the playwright does tell us one minute in that the bad guy is being charged with repetitive acts of solicitation, rape, sodomy and murder.

The play seems to take place in some futuristic time, since the villain has a secret garden--decidedly not like Frances Hodgson Burnett's--in which he has planted an actual, live, rare poplar sapling. In this futuristic online nether-realm, Papa (Frank Wood) has an 1880 Gothic revival mansion where assorted men go to seduce and ravage a twelve-year-old girl, and then--as part of the prearranged program--cleave her sweet little head with an axe. And then return the next day, to do it again.

This is all imaginary, of course, except we do get to see the 12-year-old (Sophia Anne Caruso), who wears a Victorian dress and Victorian underwear and is extremely solicitous of her clients. And we do get to see a real axe, but no real blood. One supposes there might be all sorts of complaints if The Nether were written by some ghoulish middle-aged man, but since the playwright is a 30-somethingish woman it's okay.
Frank Wood and Merritt Wever in Jennifer Haley's The Nether.
Photo: Jenny Anderson

The 13-year-old Ms. Caruso--best known as Brigitta in The Sound of Music Live!--is certainly real, but her character ("Iris") seems to be a figment of reality roleplay. At other times, though, it appears that the investigative detective who is chasing Papa--Detective Morris, they call her (Merritt Wever, an Emmy winner from "Nurse Jackie")--was actually formerly Iris. And if you really want to be confused--spoiler alert!--the 65-year-old teacher Doyle (Peter Friedman), in the final scene, seems to be the real Iris. One can only wonder what Friedman--an invaluable actor with forty years-worth of credits, including leading roles in the original productions of The Heidi Chronicles and Ragtime--must be thinking as he says lines about how he hears the sound of tiny dwarves who live in snowy mountains singing falsetto, and tells Mr. Wood that he doesn't want to grow up 'cause he loves him.

Ms. Haley surely has a point to make here, in The Nether, and perhaps a pertinent one; whatever it is, it sure didn't come through to this viewer. Given the success of the play in London--where it played at the Royal Court, and has now transferred to the Duke of York's Theatre--and the photos visible on the author's website, there might well be more to The Nether than is apparent in the Anne Kauffman-directed MCC production at the Lortel.
The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, opened February 24, 2015 and continues through March 15 at the Lucille Lortel
Stacey Sargeant, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Libby Winters in Charles Mee's Big Love. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Up at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street, we have Signature's revival of Charles Mee's Big Love. Which is big, all right, spread out over the stage and side aprons of the Frank Gehry-designed Irene Diamond Stage. The expansive walls are whitewashed, with high-density photos; the back wall gives us an invitingly vast view of the Mediterranean; and the ceiling is hung with colorful spring-flowers like grapes on the arbor.

Big Love is also strange. Mr. Mee does not write easy plays, as adventurous theatergoers have already learned. This one is a modern-day retelling of The Danaids by Aeschylus. Fifty maidens flee across the sea to escape an arranged marriage to fifty cousins; they are sheltered by an Italian, who ultimately decides that he cannot protect them. It all results in a bloodbath, and I do mean a bloodbath.

Mee does not give us fifty brides for fifty brothers; only three of each, which works just as well. Mee and director Tina Landau do, however, give us a wild extravaganza with all stops pulled out. Early on, the girls whip out wireless microphones and serenade us with Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me," only the first of many pop songs which incongruously but winningly puncture the narrative. The boys enter from the skies, catapulting in on ropes. There are trampolines, a bathtub which is twice used in such a manner that your eyes will likely be glued to it, and so many pratfalls in quick succession that you have to wonder what the understudy situation is over there. Is there a chiropractor in the house?

Mee's intellectual conceit is intriguing, to a point. Eventually, Greek drama turns to Hellzapoppin', and it's every man or woman for him or herself; there is even a Lorena Bobbitt moment, so help us, with the excised appendage dropped into a smoothie blender. As drama, I'm afraid Big Love runs far afield. I will say, though, that some of the images will likely remain memorable.
Big Love, by Charles Mee, opened February 23, 2015 and continues through March 15 at the Signature Center