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Deborah Hope and Stanley Andrew Jackson III in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of NSFW.EXPAND
Deborah Hope and Stanley Andrew Jackson III in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of NSFW.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

The Comedy Is Undone By the Staleness In NSFW

The good news is that a lot has changed for the better since Lucky Kirkwood wrote NSFW in 2012, now playing at Stages Repertory Theatre. Between the #MeToo and Times Up movement, things like female sexual exploitation, workplace harassment and the belief that there’s no fight better than a catfight, are mercifully no longer accepted and shrugged off.

The bad news is that in our woke and ever awakening climate, watching Kirkwood's play, which isn't old enough to be retro and instead presents as a modern play, feels stale and distinctly out of step. This despite a terrific cast working every dramedy angle in this 90-minute, three-scene show.

NSFW (the acronym for lurid photos that should not be viewed at work) is loosely about the story of Sam (Stanley Andrew Jackson III), a principled, decent sort who loses his job at Dog House, a UK-based men’s magazine in the vein of Maxim, when he accidentally publishes a topless photo of an underage girl. A photo, it turns out, she never consented to, but rather her boyfriend submitted. And a photo the young girl’s father has seen and is litigiously enraged about.

If that sounds like the set up for drama, think again. Kirkwood throws good laddish English humor at the situation. Jokes about how developed her breasts are. A full body panic attack bit that leaves Sam cowering under a table, wondering if he’s now a pedophile. A mad scramble to change all the London markers in the office when they learn the father is from Manchester and will be coming in for a meeting.

No question, the manic pace at which this all unfolds is funny on the surface. It’s easy to laugh as Sam’s colleagues, Charlotte (Donna Bella Litton) and Rupert (Dayne Lathrop), go from sparing with the demanding and slick Dog House editor, Aidan (David Matranga), to freaking out over the publishing “mistake.”

All the while, the naked photo of the minor stares at us from the wall, in silence. Violated, as we laugh at the antics on stage. Her feelings utterly unconsidered.

If that doesn't feel wrong or at least out of touch with where we are now, Aidan's comment once he digests the bad news certainly reminds us just how musty the thinking is in this show. "What is a 15-year-old doing taking naked photos? That's disgusting," says Aidan in moral declaration we’re meant to agree with. Problem is, you can’t turn on the news today without seeing a story about the perils of underage sexting or sexual videos gone unwantedly viral. It may still be disgusting, but we don’t question its existence or the misogynist pressures forcing the young women to participate.

Things get a little more serious in the second act when the girl’s father, Mr. Bradshaw (Thomas Prior) confronts Aidan at the magazine offices. But rather than being out of touch, this scene feels out to lunch.

Imagine a situation where your daughter has been publicly violated by a major media outlet and you are threatening to take them to court, as Mr. Bradshaw says he is. Imagine that a magazine screws up in the biggest way possible and is facing an enormous lawsuit, one that could ruin them. Now imagine that the parties meet to discuss the issue formally without any lawyers present. Ludicrous, right?

In her play Chimerica, which imagines the story of the photographer behind the infamous Tiananmen Square ‘Tank Man’ image, Kirkwood was raked over the coals by American critics for her unrealistic portrayal of how journalists operate. I confess that I didn’t find that to be the case. But when it comes to NSFW, Kirkwood certainly seems not to have done her research into how media publications work when it comes to potential lawsuits. Not only would there have been one lawyer at that meeting, the whole damn legal department would have been at the table.

Even with all this frustration, reward comes via this scene from the brilliant performance of Matranga as Aidan. Unctuous doesn’t begin to describe how Aidan works poor Mr. Bradshaw. Blame him, blame his daughter, blame anyone but the magazine for the photo being published. With the fluency of a televangelist, Matranga sews doubt and deflects responsibility that is at once revolting and a charismatic marvel. We hate him, we are awed by him and we know a great performance when we see it.

Sam reappears in the final scene, out of work, desperate and interviewing for a job at Elektra, a woman’s fashion magazine, where surprise, surprise, Kirkwood revels in the notion that when it comes to female objectification, woman are even more obsessive and worse, cruel than any men’s magazine could be.

It’s not that Kirkwood isn’t onto something here. It’s long been acknowledged that women’s media helps perpetuate negative body imagery and a sense of not measuring up. But again, we watch this play through 2019 eyes, so after more than an hour of men treating women like meat at worst and underlings at best (Aidan’s bullying of Charlotte deserves its own essay), the last thing we need is to watch women be shit to other women. Especially not given the strides we’ve made when it comes to sisterhood these last couple years.

And yet, like Aidan in the previous scene, here too we have reason to watch. As Elektra Editor, Miranda, Deborah Hope may be narcissistically insufferable, but she’s too good at it not to be impressed. In her crisp white shirt and black pants and donning a dark short wig that conjures Joan Collins in the most flattering way, Hope paints Miranda as the most confident/insecure woman imaginable. A woman who’s only interested in women once she knows how they fall short.

This type of female cannibalism just isn't in the air these days and here inNSFW, it feels not like a cautionary tale, but rather an accusation. In a time when women are excited at the number of females running for and winning political office, focusing on a character who is delighted to find out that Sam's ex-girlfriend's nipples were too large, seems painfully reductive and tiresome.

Perhaps if Stages could provide audiences with a time machine to take us back to 2012, we could find more enjoyment in this show. In fairness, they did take a risk programming NSFW in that it is a bit naughty in places, naked photos and bare bums are not the usual Stages fare. But if boundaries are what the Stages team wants to push, let’s just hope that the next time they do so with a show that doesn’t feel well past its due date.

NSFW continues through March 3 at Stages Theater, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, visit stagestheater.com or call 713-527-0123. $25-$57.

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