Dayne Lathrop and David Matranga in NSFW at Stages Repertory Theatre.

I first thought the NSFW set was a teenager’s bedroom with a desk and lots of porn for wall décor. But no—this is the London office of the girlie mag Dog House. It’s where a smarmy Aidan (David Matranga) calls the shots, and where he must do some serious damage control when the winner of his magazine’s nude photo contest turns out to be both underage and unaware that her boyfriend submitted the picture without her consent.

Directed by Leslie Swackhamer, I admit Lucy Kirkwood’s 2012 play seems a bit stuck in time, like a snapshot of the sleazier side of magazines before everyone, in the wake of #MeToo, got all woke. I mean, that’s okay, and I am always ready to give the playwright his or her donnée. But in its desire to critique capitalism, NSFW asks us to believe that these younger, underemployed media workers are irrevocably at the mercy of their employers, and have to take what they can get to get by. Surely one of these characters might say Take this job and shove it, or stage a media revolution and come up with something better than a microwaved version of Maxim or an ad-riddled echo of Cosmopolitan or Vogue. I am fine with satire (which is disappearing as literalism continues its takeover of interpretation of all kinds), but usually satire is a lot funnier, with an implied antidote for whatever is ailing society. Not so here.

Aiden’s employees, Sam (Stanley Andrew Jackson III), Rupert (Dayne Lathrop), and Charlotte (Donna Bell Litton), at least in the opening scenes, all look like they just rolled out of bed, the signature of, well, the underemployed? The professionally mis- or displaced?  Or is this the look of resignation, the giving into the cruel fate of a flawed system?  Not sure, but the sets (Ryan McGettigan), costumes (Kristina Miller), and fluorescent lighting (Devlin Browning) are great—and all gel together. 

Rupert is a spoiled, mouthy, trust-fund brat who traffics in juvenile humor. He even moons his boss as an answer to a request. But who says professionalism is dead in the workplace? I quite liked Lathrop in this role, and his lack of seriousness is about the funniest thing in this play. Sam, who actually has a conscience, feels deep remorse about this teenage girl having her nude photo spread all over, and when he tries to decamp to a women’s magazine called Elektra, the audience realizes that you can leave a girlie magazine, but media exploitation is so pervasive, you only get a new version of female exploitation. In other words, the daddy issues don’t go away—they just come in the more socially acceptable world that is women’s fashion. 

With this, Kirkwood’s play brilliantly reminds us that both the Dog Houses and Elektras of the world are fueled by ideal images of women that prey on women’s insecurities—the very flaws that sustain the industries that advertise in said magazines: fashion, make-up, plastic surgery. Or for men, activities that are manly enough for a man who can dominate a woman, at least insofar as they can look at her in a vulnerable photo. 

Women, Kirkwood suggests, can’t seem to defy these “norms,” but of course they can.  Women do it every day, as proven by print magazines folding like houses of cards, and the new Puritanism of woke men and women in permanent states of outrage. So what is Kirkwood saying? That women are so weak that they cannot pull a Nancy Reagan and “just say no”?  The underage girl is an exception—she didn’t know what being photographed could be used for. And she has a father, Mr. Bradshaw (Thomas Prior), who could make things just, but he falls prey to “the system” which is dramatized by the sleazy Aiden, who almost manages to convince the father, with the most ridiculous arguments imaginable, that maybe he is himself at fault for his daughter being slutty and older-looking and available for photographs. 

It is not that Aiden is so smart: It is that the rest of us are so dumb in dealing with the machinations of the media. In any case, the play is worth seeing to watch David Matranga pull these scenes off. It is really something, and you can’t help but want to cheer when Mr. Bradshaw exclaims, “Bloody hell! What’s it like being you?”

Stanley Andrew Jackson III and Deborah Hope in NSFW at Stages Repertory Theatre.

You have to wait a while to get to the star of this show, and that person is Deborah Hope, a Houston favorite for a reason: She is superlative and mesmerizing. With her blasé gestures and passive aggressive way of communicating, she makes us understand how the publications that we may think of as the least offensive (fashion is fabulous, right?) are the ones who are the most insidious and crafty at exploiting women. As Miranda, the ruthless editor of Elektra, Hope dangles a poorly paid job in front of Sam, who is trying to stay in publishing for reasons that are unclear. After all, he has lost his gig at Dog House, as well as the woman he truly respected and loved. But at any rate, Hope gives a mesmerizing performance as the powerful editor who is sort of a cocktail of those raven-haired celebrity beauties who demand attention and pout a lot—a faux innocence that acts as a veneer for cold-hearted guile.  Take your pick: Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, Joan Collins, Elizabeth Taylor. Just add a little Anna Wintour to that mix. 

If “crossing the line” with an underage girl is the crisis of the first part of the play, then the creepiness of Miranda having no lines to cross hits you even harder. She is ageist in a way that manages to distract from the sexism she depends on in society for her magazine and “advert hair” to be consumed. She has no empathy for the younger “generation”—they are just economic victims of “the climate,” which she takes no responsibility for. She may be a botoxed crazy lady, but she holds all the cards. She knows that when women don’t feel desirable anymore, they “feel like a f****** ghost.” Obsessed with finding flaws in women to sustain her poisonous enterprise, it is a wonderful irony that when she dresses up for a party, her heroine is a suffragette get-up; but hey, it’s only a costume.

You get great performances in a play about female performance (unwitting or not)—whether for the male gaze, the warped Freudian psychology in our heads, or the balm for female insecurity. But not to worry. Women have the vote and all, and no one has to buy into any of the things that Kirkwood thinks are an outrage and worthy of satire. Maybe women are more ahead of the game than NSFW suggests.

Thru March 3. Tickets from $25. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy. 713-527-0123. More info and tickets at stagestheatre.com.

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