Reviews Off-Broadway Published 11 February 2015

Pretty Filthy

Abrons Arts Center ⋄ 31st January - 1st March 2015

Porn – the musical.

Alison Walls

The Civilians take an explorative approach to their work and in Pretty Filthy, their musical about the porn industry, they set out to explore the “other Hollywood,” the research process for this new work involving numerous interviews, set visits, the attendance of a “porn star karaoke night” and “lots of coffee dates with porn stars.”

As the opening projection explains, “Some time ago, The Civilians were commissioned by a ‘big theatre in Los Angeles’ to make a show about the adult entertainment industry” and here the actors play some of the people they met. Among those people is Becky/Taylor – the young, all-American girl who aspires to, and becomes, a porn star – provides the closest thing to a through-line.

Generally, however, although we do learn of certain changes in the various characters’ lives, The Civilians do not attempt to create a clear, character-driven narrative arc. The story here is more of the industry as a whole and the arc would perhaps be better described as a slow descent.

The strong ensemble-driven approach works well, and the multiple characters embodied by the cast seem particularly appropriate, given the difficult binary we learn the porn star must negotiate between their ‘real’ and onscreen personas. This theme is highlighted by the brilliant opening song, ‘Names’, a high energy number explaining how various characters chose their porn name. The same theme is approached in a more melancholic fashion in ‘Becky & Bobby & Taylor & Dick’. The song is a duet, but one in which Becky/Taylor and her boyfriend Bobby/Dick (played by Marrick Smith) sing poignantly alongside, rather than with, each other about the difficulties of there being a metaphorical “four” in the bed.

The music and lyrics by Michael Friedman are one of the strongest points of the show.  There is a charming self-referential nature to the music that, without becoming a total send-up, clearly alludes to certain conventions of the musical whilst cleverly and subtly aligning them with the business of porn. Steve Rosen manages, for instance, as Jewish agent Sam Spiegel to inject a touch of klezmer mingled with show-tune shimmy into ‘Impossible Girls’. Choreographer, Sam Pinkleton isn’t afraid to add in a few “jazz hands” moments either.

Darrel Maloney’s projection techniques are used skilfully and complement Neil Patel’s spare set. A back view of the Hollywood sign provides a consistent literal and thematic setting, which is taken over by a whirlwind of names for ‘Names’ or a montage of fountains for ‘Squirting 101’. A row of doors in the simple back wall serve practically, as entrances, and aesthetically, to frame the performers as they present themselves as the variety of characters to be found in the porn industry, while occasionally also providing tantalising glimpses of the band.

My only real issue with Pretty Filthy is its cleanness and by that I do not mean the absence of sex, but of the social ugliness that I remain convinced must play a substantial part in the industry. It is touched on, but only lightly. A short monologue by Brown Sugar (Lulu Fall) provides a welcome moment of social commentary when – following ‘Waiting for Wood’ (a number where the men lament their reduction to prop status in straight porn) – she asks, “I’m sorry people. Is it hard to be a white man in America?! Are you fucking kidding me?” Conversely, the references to actresses who “won’t do interracial”, to drug use, STIs, or plastic surgery go largely without comment. Financial instability is another theme and Luba Mason as Georgina Congress brings some sense of the sexual exploitation constantly hovering in the background as she recounts being asked to take her top off and be the “slut” in her first “mainstream audition.”

One wonders if this lack of grit is due in part to the nature of the development process. The characters both extol the amount of money to be made in porn (whilst also telling of a general financial decline in the industry supposed to be “recession proof”) yet frequently insist that they do it because “they like it”, suggesting that the interviewees weren’t always consistent in which story they presented – or at least that there are other, less empowering, stories to be told. The characters are generally likeable (some very much so) and this doubtless reflects The Civilians’ wish to show respect and gratitude towards the people who opened their lives to them.

This aside, the show as a whole is highly enjoyable. The cast work as a real ensemble and inject charm and energy into their performances and, under Steve Cosson’s direction, the production has an overall stylistic coherence.

Pretty Filthy Show Info

Produced by The Civillians

Directed by Steve Cosson

Original Music Michael Friedman

Show Details & Tickets


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