Toronto Theatres Have Sex—and Sexploitation—on the Brain
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Toronto Theatres Have Sex—and Sexploitation—on the Brain

Studio 180's NSFW satirizes skin mags, while Tarragon's Sextet finds harmony in erotic discord.

Patrick Galligan, left, Ian D  Clark, and Jessica Greenberg star in Studio 180's NSFW   Photo by Karri North

Patrick Galligan, left, Ian D. Clark, and Jessica Greenberg star in Studio 180’s NSFW . Photo by Karri North.

The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
November 20–30

Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue)
November 20–December 14
4 Stars

Lucy Kirkwood’s NSFW is a very funny play that leaves you feeling very sad. The up-and-coming British playwright’s merciless media satire, receiving its North American premiere from Toronto’s Studio 180 at the Theatre Centre, offers a bleak picture of a current magazine culture characterized by moral bankruptcy and economic desperation. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where young employees, over-qualified and underpaid, debase themselves for a paycheque, while their cynical bosses seem to have sold—or lost—their souls long ago. More depressing, however, is that everyone, from sleazebags to pseudo-feminists, is profiting off the objectification of women.

So, you may be asking, what else is new? Kirkwood’s black comedy, first produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012, isn’t exactly an exposé. Older audience members watching its two opposing editors, the suave Aidan of fictional lad rag Doghouse and the tightly wound Miranda of women’s glossy Electra, might be reminded of their prototypes, Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley Brown. Aidan, like Hefner, favours girl-next-door types with—in the words of Rimbaud—“tétons énormes,” for his soft-core masturbation mag. Miranda, meanwhile, wants to empower women readers à la Brown, even as she helps enslave them by promoting an unattainable standard of female perfection.

What’s new is that it’s the 21st century, when feminism and enlightened attitudes about the sexes ought to have changed all this. Instead, Kirkwood suggests, we just have enlightened people willingly pandering to the public’s basest instincts in a mad scramble for an ever-dwindling readership.

The play’s title—which stands for “Not Safe for Work”—is online lingo for websites you shouldn’t be caught viewing on your office computer. Here, however, it’s the work itself that isn’t safe. Sam (Aaron Stern), a Doghouse intern, finds himself in hot water when he inadvertently allows a nude photo of a 14-year-old girl to appear in the magazine. He has to take the fall after the girl’s enraged father (a gruff but moving Ian D. Clark) threatens to sue. But the sly Aidan (Patrick Galligan) makes a bid to mollify the old man and proves that even outraged dads have their price.

Sam, meanwhile, ends up applying for a job at Electra. Interviewed by the neurotic Miranda (Susan Coyne), he has to prove his aptitude by looking at photos of famous beauties and identifying their physical flaws. Sweet-natured Sam—who was mortified by the fact he couldn’t suss out a well-developed 14-year-old—is now stymied by his inability to see crow’s feet or asymmetrical breasts as imperfections. He may be the only decent, pure-hearted person in this play, and yet Kirkwood suggests he’d sell out his conscience, too, if that would mean getting a foothold on the career ladder.

While our sympathies lie with Kirkwood’s young characters, it’s the older ones who get most of the laughs—especially as played by seasoned actors Galligan and Coyne. Galligan’s smooth, silver-haired Aidan is capable of both a charming boyish enthusiasm and an icy pragmatism. He’s so slippery that you have no idea who he really is or what he really believes.

Yet he’s a comparatively simple sleaze-monger next to Coyne’s truly tragicomic Miranda—a woman who idolizes feminist heroines yet behaves like a misogynist. Beneath her breezy, brittle exterior, you sense a deep well of loathing for herself and her sex. Of these two editors who make a living by exploiting the female body, Miranda’s hypocrisy cuts deeper.

Coyne and Galligan are brilliant, but, like Kirkwood’s magazine industry, Joel Greenberg’s Studio 180 production fails the younger generation. We ought to be admiring Sam, or feeling sorry for his fellow scut puppies, but that’s hard when the actors give such stilted performances. As the intern, Stern mistakes “callow” for “shallow,” while James Graham is weak as a whiny upper-class kid, and Jessica Greenberg does little with her role as Aidan’s conflicted aide. The trio’s office banter, like their English accents, sounds forced.

While NSFW suffers from an uneven cast, Sextet at Tarragon Theatre benefits from a uniformly excellent one. There’s nothing like watching six superb comic actors playing in perfect harmony under the baton of a master playwright-director. That playwright-director is the prolific Morris Panych—7 Stories, Vigil, Earshot etc.—so you know the writing will be quick and maybe even a little too clever. But if his latest comedy is full of flashy arpeggios, it has also been composed with feeling.

Bruce Dow and Rebecca Northan in a scene from Tarragon Theatre's Sextet  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Bruce Dow and Rebecca Northan in a scene from Tarragon Theatre’s Sextet. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The musicians of a touring classical string sextet are stuck in a crummy motel during a blizzard, where their obsessions with sex, love, and progeny have plenty of time to run rampant. The unhappy gay cellist Harry (Damien Atkins) has the hots for the studly, narcissistic violist Dirk (Matthew Edison). Fellow violist Otto (Jordan Pettle) is besotted with violinist Mavis (Rebecca Northan), who, despite being ardently Roman Catholic, may be pregnant with his baby. She’s also in an open marriage with the group’s kaftan-clad leader, Gerard (Bruce Dow), who has broad romantic appetites but a minuscule sperm count. And let’s not forget frumpy, sexually frustrated Sylvia (Laura Condlln), the other cellist, who has caught the eye of Dirk but is throwing herself at Otto.

Panych’s inspiration is Verklärte Nacht, a 19th-century German poem by Richard Dehmel about sexual indiscretion, and the basis for the Arnold Schoenberg sextet of the same name. Gerard, in his own moment of inspiration, decides that the ensemble should play the difficult piece. Panych’s writing is like a musical piece itself, with his actors engaging in solos, duets, and contrapuntal passages. It’s hard to pick favourites when everyone has brought their A game, but the funniest moments may well involve the exchanges between Atkins’ painfully sensitive Harry and Edison’s hilariously blockheaded Dirk.

Part of the fun of watching a new Panych play is seeing what kind of clever set design Ken MacDonald, his longtime creative/life partner, has come up with. For Sextet, MacDonald gives us a row of six identical motel rooms through which the restless musicians weave in and out, chased by Kimberly Purtell’s lighting. Another Panych signature is the O. Henry–style twist ending, but this time—despite some plot surprises—he opts for a gently philosophical finale. While Kirkwood’s comedy is fuelled by a young playwright’s anger, Panych’s work leaves us with an older one’s wry wisdom.