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%