Review: Pretty Filthy

playbill“You’re going to see a PORN MUSICAL??”
“Well, I don’t think so. I think it’s a musical about the porn industry.”

(Ah, opening a blog post with cheap clickbait. What fun!)

But we are Serious Theatergoers, so I’ll skip further titillation and get right to discussing Pretty Filthy, a new musical from The Civilians. They’re a popular and innovative “investigative theater” company focused on bringing the stories of real people to the stage. Their performances are generally based on interviews conducted by the company themselves, and Pretty Filthy, a show about making it in the porn industry, is another product of this process. You can see it at the Abrons Arts Center through March 1.

Anyone curious about how the industry works — and who isn’t? — would probably get a kick out of it. Pretty Filthy features fascinating perspectives on the porn industry from agents, stars, former stars, cameramen, directors, wannabes, distributors, and more. Porn stars tell us how they got their stage names; a cameraman discusses framing angles; a famous porn star couple explains how they negotiate their relationship; straight guys talk about the appeal of working in gay porn movies. There’s a fairly thin story connecting all these delightful vignettes. Nice girl Becky — very much one of the Me Generation — aspires to porn stardom, and this show traces the ups and downs of her career and introduces us to the people she meets along the way.  It’s extremely clever, nicely constructed, funny, and continually interesting. And it has lots of room to improve.

Why’s that? Well, I think that there’s more substance to this subject than the treatment we see onstage. It’s not as though I was hoping for a vicious exposé of the porn industry (though come to think of it, a musical theater version of Frontline does sound like fun). To be honest, however, i think this show could ask a few more difficult questions. Because for the most part, this is the porn industry from their own perspective. So you get a very funny song about the guy who found the G-spot, but not a whole lot on the character traits that might lead one to a life in the industry. Or the industry’s potentially exploitative relationship with young girls, or its damaging effect on body image, or any one of a hundred other issues. In my mind, a more thorough exploration of one of these angles might have given the show more punch.

And it feels unfair to say I was disappointed with the music, though I suppose I was. That’s simply because the music was written by Michael Friedman, whose score for Fortress of Solitude is one of the best I’ve heard in the last year (as I said a few months ago). It’s not that the Pretty Filthy songs are bad; it just has nowhere near the texture and depth of his music for Solitude. For those of you familiar with the (excellent) Civilians podcast: the songs are in that vein. Small, and funny, and fine (as Sondheim would say), but not the sort of number that will stick with you.

Still though, the ensemble cast is delightful. I loved Luba Mason as an older porn star, and Steve Rosen is fantastic as some of the sleazier (and more hilarious) characters. Plus the production is nicely staged (by Steve Cosson, who also co-conceived the project). If Pretty Filthy doesn’t ever reach the satirical heights of a Urinetown, it still has plenty to enjoy. Though you might feel a bit icky at the end. Comes with the territory, I suppose.

One final admission: Like a jerk, I’m reviewing the very first preview performance. (If I were really a Serious Theatergoer, I would tell myself “But that is simply not done, my dear!”) I’m sorry, Civilians. I didn’t realize this until after I left the theatre last night. I’m hoping the fact that I enjoyed it way more than I liked the last Civilians production I saw helps make up for my rudeness.

My Grade: B
Ticket price: $29 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Standing Ovation Watch: Maybe 10%

Review Roundup for October

If you’re wondering where I’ve gone: nowhere! But I have been really busy at work lately, and had quite a few baseball games to watch over these past few weeks. Plus I’ve been taking dance lessons! Plus I’ve been sewing! Plus I’ve been keeping an eye on Sycamore!

But of course, I’ve managed to sneak a few shows in as well. To eliminate the backlog of shows I had planned to write about, I’ll just spit them all out in one go. My apologies for this: All of these shows deserve a full post. But I was getting so far behind!

Starting with the most recent:

2014-10-21 18.49.56The Fortress of Solitude: “Was that show wankery? Because the book was wankery,” my friend Jeremiah said. I instantly wanted to defend the new musical’s many assets: a fantastic score, wonderful cast, lively choreography, evocative characters. The new musical (based on the Jonathan Lethem novel) is set in the 1970s and is about two boys (one white, one black) growing up in Brooklyn long before it became trendy. Dylan is a smart kid whose hippie parents relocate from Berkeley; his best friend Mingus is the son of a coke-sniffing backup singer who once had aspirations to be the next Marvin Gaye. The Fortress of Solitude beautifully evokes this musical era, with splashes of R&B, 1970s funk, hip hop, and some traditional Broadway mixed in, too. The music (by Michael Friedman) is just outstanding. Now Fortress of Solitude has got a lot of problems, too: the most prominent is the unclear storytelling that had me wanting to find the plot summary on wikipedia to find out all the stuff that wasn’t clear in the show. The (sometimes sexual) relationship between Dylan and Mingus also feels forced — I never understood why these boys connected so deeply with each other. It’s certainly a flawed musical, but it’s nevertheless an entertaining one. And hey, at least it’s not wankery.

My Grade: B Running time: 2 Hours, 45 minutes Ticket price: $40 (with Public membership) Worth it: yes Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50

2014-10-21 19.07.41The Old Man and the Old Moon: I saw this show two years ago at the Gym at Judson, and remember liking it. But I hadn’t planned to see it again, until Cheryl offered me a free ticket. This family show is an adventure story about an old man willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find his wife. The results of his adventure are more or less disastrous — but all turns out well in the end. The show, written and performed by the handsome (erm, very handsome in fact) and talented young gentlemen of Pigpen Theatre, contains all sorts of low-budget theatrical tricks — lots of puppetry, lighting tricks, and the like. It’s also got some terrific songs (All these guys can play instruments as well as act and write — they’re a band as well.) But even with the quick 90-minute running time, I still found this show to drag a bit. The Old Man’s story feels aimless and the troubles he faces aren’t terribly exciting. Even when he’s fighting in a war/swallowed by a whale/discovering an underground city. I just kept thinking these guys should get to the point. What’s interesting is that I remember being charmed by all this the first time I saw the show. Perhaps it just doesn’t hold up all that well to a second viewing. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to see what PigPen does next. Perhaps a show for grownups? Or maybe I should just listen to their cd.

My Grade: C Running time: 90 minutes Ticket price: $0 (comp from Cheryl) Worth it: Yes Standing Ovation Watch: Can’t remember! Think it was about 25% standing

2014-10-12 13.58.49Brownsville Song (B side for Tray): Real life kept intruding as I watched Brownsville Song at LCT3. I was thinking of my students (some of whom live in Brownsville); I was thinking of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests. That’s not to say I wasn’t interested in the play; it’s just that a show about a young black man gunned down in the street doesn’t feel like escapism right now. Brownsville Song has an incredibly wrenching opening scene, in which Lena (Lizan Mitchell, who is wonderful) mourns her grandson Tray (Sheldon Best), and informs us that the story shouldn’t begin with her grief. We then travel back in time to several months prior, when Tray was a sweet big brother, a great employee, a promising student. His death, it becomes clear, is the result of a random act of gang violence. Playwright Kimber Lee has a good ear for realistic dialogue, and at 90 minutes the story moves along quickly. To be honest, though, that opening scene had me prepared for a societal indictment that could help me make sense of all the real life issues swirling in my head as I watched the show. Instead, it’s an intimate drama of a close-knit family ripped apart by violence. I didn’t quite connect to it, though, because Tray has few flaws and seems to be more of a symbol than a real person. So this play wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. But man, that opening scene will stick with me a long time.

My Grade: B Running time: 90 minutes Ticket price: $24.75 Worth it: Yes Standing Ovation Watch: No