Zombie gnashes its way through OHara's frenzied, hilarious script. Haras frenzied, hilarious script. s frenzied, hilarious script. Credit: Handout photo by Stan Barouh

In Zombie: The American, a gnarly, stained-toothed takedown of American exceptionalism, the 2064 presidential election is locked in an undead heat.

It’s been a rough half-century for the Land of the Free. Climate change, referred to more biblically here as The Flood, has spurred a “great migration from the east to the middle.” Our former colonial master, Britain, came to our rescue; in a weird show of gratitude, we have Anglicized our political titles and customs. Thus our first openly gay commander-in-chief is addressed as “Lord President” Valentine; he wears tight gold trousers but dons the crown only for formal occasions. The imminent threat of a second Civil War and a brewing coup d’état has forced this embattled LPOTUS to welcome armed peacekeepers from an ascendant and united Africa, which turns out to like pushing around weaker nations as much as his own once did. “Raise the terror alert to Pink Polka Dot,” he commands gravely. Valentine’s hawkish Lady Secretary of State—Sarah Marshall, hunched over to recall Tricky Dick Nixon—urges him to go further still and unleash the unthinkable: The Zombie Option.

In playwright Robert O’Hara’s frenzied scenario, zombies in the basement stand in not-so-subtly for skeletons in the national closet—the closet of a country stolen from one people and built up via the slave labor of another. Misha Kachman’s Oval Office set, complete with a throne outfitted with 10 drawers, rises like the silver lid of a dinner tray to show us the White House bowels. There, a trio of “zekes,” their chewed flesh glistening (there’s no credit in the program for the excellent makeup effects, strangely), snarl and writhe while continuing, hilariously, to observe parliamentary procedure. Judging from their clothes (by Ivania Stack, who designed all the costumes), they might have been down there since the White House was rebuilt after the 1814 fire.

Theater is not the first medium we turn to for these sardonic, dystopian visions of the graves we’re digging for ourselves. Washington Stage Guild has sweated hard in recent years to try to blow the dust off of George Bernard Shaw’s predictions of a technologically wondrous, politically realigned future, written in the 1920s. But those plays haven’t aged nearly as well as Fritz Lang’s landmark futuristic film Metropolis from the same era.

It’s no surprise that Zombie, which O’Hara started working on in 2012, has a more contemporary, um, bite. Lines like “You are no longer my ride-or-die gentleman!” probably won’t mean anything to audiences in 90 years either, but they sure do land now. When Marshall refers to Valentine and his Asian-American First Gentleman (James Seol) as “the perfect Benetton ad,” the reference feels a little dated, but maybe it’ll orbit back into relevance again in 49 years. Language is funny that way.

O’Hara is a resident playwright at Woolly, which premiered his plays Antebellum and Bootycandy in 2009 and 2011, respectively. The latter featured Zombie cast members Sean Meehan, who brings a nervy conviction to the role of Valentine, and Jessica Frances Dukes, who is better as an undead who hisses “We’re not vegetarians!” when offered a clone to snack on than she is in a vague second role as a scheming Chief Justice. In the latter part, she’s in cahoots with Tim Getman, also double-cast as a presidential candidate governor and the “Zombie Speaker of Zombies.” The conspiracy subplot involving their human characters is the play’s most undernourished aspect. It also demands that they and Thomas Keegan, who’s very good as a rebellious military commander, remove and reapply their elaborate gore makeup two or three times per show. They deserve hazard pay.

More rewarding is Woolly regular Dawn Ursula’s imperious turn as the United Africa’s Secretary General, a leader who can inflect the word “motherfucker” more ways than Samuel L. Jackson, and who isn’t going to stand by when an African peacekeeper gets stoned to death in the once-again-wild American West. She offers up a new-but-in-fact-quite-old definition of “WMD” 99 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act: White Men Did it. Meanwhile, Seol’s First Gentleman creates a potential security breach by misbehaving with a clone White House butler. (The clones in O’Hara’s world sometimes seem to possess free will and other times don’t. They’re like humans in that way.)

In the role of that clone butler, Luigi Sottile is all but unrecognizable from his part as a bad-boy author in Signature Theatre’s terrific Sex with Strangers last fall. That drama managed a rare perfect landing, but Zombie just goes bigger, louder, and more explicit in its indictment of grotesque jingoism when it finally runs out of narrative steam. But hey: When a play is this invested in characters who want to eat your braaaaaaaains, you can only judge it so harshly for bashing you over the head.

Head-bashing is the opposite of what 30-year-old British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s incisive 2012 comedy NSFW does. Like O’Hara, she’s a satirist, but where he swings a chainsaw, she reaches for her scalpel.

NSFW isn’t about sexism in the workplace, but rather about workplaces in an industry that knowingly, deliberately propagates sexism, while claiming it’s simply giving its customers what they demand. The industry is magazine publishing, specifically the subset of publications that cater separately to women and men: Maxim, and its raunchier (and recently cancelled) British counterparts Loaded and Nuts, but also Cosmopolitan and Shape. Kirkwood poses the provocative question of which set of reductively gendered publications treats women worse. And because she’s a clever writer, she asks it without putting it in the mouth of one of her characters. (The men in her scenario outnumber the women four to two, but whaddayagonnado?)

Besides bringing a laserlike acuity to its setting and subject, NSFW is also the most formally daring play in D.C. (Bethesda, technically) since Anne Washburn’s mindbending Mr. Burns premiered at Woolly Mammoth three summers ago. Out of respect for that, I’ll keep my summation of it coy. Most of NSFW is set in the London offices of Doghouse magazine, whose smart-but-smarmy editor, Aidan (a never-better James Whalen), encourages ambition among his overqualified staff by urging them—with seeming guilelessness—to “live in the space between the tits.”

Doghouse is in a bind: It turns out the amateur topless model who “won” its “Local Lovely” contest is underage. (Tony Cisek’s sleek set includes a wall of framed Doghouse covers on top of a floor-to-ceiling Union Jack, so if pneumatic breasts offend thy gaze, beware.) Aidan invites the girl’s aggrieved father (Todd Scofield, a genius at playing unsophisticated men) to come to London—first class, naturally, and on the magazine’s tab—so he can try to dissuade the man from taking Doghouse to court.

Laura C. Harris—late of Forum Theatre’s sublime Passion Play—does strong, closely observed work as the only female Doghouse staffer we meet, while remaining largely silent throughout the tense meeting. Even the question of whether she is in the room voluntarily is interesting, and unanswered.

She confides in Aidan that, while she might prefer to work elsewhere, she can’t afford to do another unpaid internship. So she lies to her women’s group about where her paychecks come from and goes to the bank grateful to have them. And yet Kirkwood hasn’t missed that while these publications are hostile to women en masse, when it comes to their own employees, they dole out the exploitation rather more equitably. Danny Gavigan and Brandon McCoy are both very funny as two middle-rung Doghouse staffers—vastly different in their behavior with respect to women—who animate this idea in believable ways. And Deborah Hazlett has an appealingly complicated performance, though to disclose the nature of her role would be telling.

The cast put on British accents from various localities—actors love accents—though the play could be set in New York with alterations only to the slang. (The program includes a glossary.) Studio Theatre will import Kirkwood’s Chimerica, the 2014 Laurence Olivier Award winner for Best New Play, later this year. That one embraces geopolitics. If Kirkwood nails that like she’s nailed publishing and sexual politics, it’ll be the hottest ticket in town.