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theatre review

NSFW’s emphasis on the publishing industry feels particularly past its best-before date.Karri North

The lads' mags have had their day in Britain. Nuts, a weekly magazine for boobs that also features pictures of topless women, shut up shop in the spring. Meanwhile, FHM, a barely more respectable monthly, has seen its circulation drop below 100,000; it used to sell 600,000 copies an issue.

You could say British playwright Lucy Kirkwood's play NSFW, now getting a North American premiere in Toronto from Studio 180, is kicking the lads when they're down. Set at a fictional lads' mag called Doghouse, it is certainly a smug piece of satire.

But the play, which premiered in Britain two years ago, is simply a reflection of the changing societal attitudes that have been as much responsible for the decline of these man-boy publications as the fact that advertisers and readers are shifting online. After all, earlier this fall, even media magnate Rupert Murdoch suggested The Sun tabloid might drop its iconic, topless Page 3 girls.

NSFW – the title refers to the Internet acronym for Not Safe For Work – begins in the beanbag chair and foosball table-festooned offices of Doghouse, shortened to DHM on the magazine mock-ups onstage in Denyse Karn's cleverly versatile set.

Middle-aged editor Aidan (Patrick Galligan) has called a congratulatory meeting with his twentysomething writers: Secret romantic Sam (Aaron Stern); closet feminist Charlotte (Jessica Greenberg, excellent); and the posh and laddish Rupert (James Graham), the only staffer who seems to actually be in tune with Doghouse's readership.

Doghouse has just gone to print with an issue showcasing the winner of its 2012 Local Lovely competition – a young Northerner named Carrie, er, Bradshaw (the first in a series of rather odd references to Sex and the City). A giant photograph of Carrie, getting them out for the lads (albeit in hand bra), hangs on the wall.

And here comes the complication: This Local Lovely, on display for the audience and characters to ogle early on, is actually only 14 years old. Her ex-boyfriend forged the consent forms. Her livid father (Ian D. Clark) is on the phone – and shortly will be in Aidan's London office, their battle forming the climax of the play.

Kirkwood's play doesn't end there, however. In the final scene, the location audaciously shifts to a fashion magazine called Electra – where the unemployed Sam is now applying for a new job.

There, editor Miranda (Susan Coyne) makes him feel uncomfortable by demanding he point out physical flaws in paparazzi images of celebrities. Kirkwood's suggestion is that if sexism and objectification are bad at the sinking lads' mags, they're actually worse in women's publications.

Coyne sends the production off on an acting high note – managing to play the clown, but maintain a tether to the real world as the overwritten Miranda – and the play hits its satirical sweet spot in its final moments. Nevertheless, it's all too obvious that, despite an inspired set-up, Kirkwood has written a series of straw men and women to beat the stuffing out of. In a better play, Aidan and Miranda would have had a real chance to defend themselves and their work, rather than just bully and bluster.

Watching this play from a (more puritanical? less sexist?) colony where the Sunshine Girls have always been clothed, NSFW's emphasis on the publishing industry feels particularly past its best-before date – a little like stumbling upon an old, dusty issue of Adbusters. After all, it's not magazines where intimate pictures of teen girls – and adult women for that matter – are being passed around without consent at the moment. Kirkwood's culture jamming is oddly lacking in resonance at a time when our concerns are on sexual cyberbullying, revenge-porn websites and anti-feminist hackers.

NSFW does have its moments of cleverness – but Studio 180's production is marred by weaknesses in the direction and performances. Director Joel Greenberg hasn't exactly shown a deft hand with satire in past productions of God of Carnage and Clybourne Park – and his awkwardness around comedy is even more apparent here with a middling play.

I'd also draw little red circles, in particular, around Clark's casting as Mr. Bradshaw (maybe as Carrie's grandfather) and Stern's performance (hopelessly lost in his accent, and like a squirrel in the headlights throughout). Now in its 12th season, Studio 180 has spent most of its time mounting straightforward productions of plays with track records from abroad – sometimes knocking them out of the park (Cock, The Normal Heart) and sometimes not. Here's hoping for a little more artistic ambition from this well-established company going forward.

Visit studio180theatre.com for tickets and times.