'Pretty Filthy': Theater Review
The investigative theater troupe The Civilians explore Los Angeles' adult film industry in their new musical
In their previous shows the acclaimed experimental theater troupe The Civilians has tackled such topics as climate change, the 1871 Paris Commune and urban redevelopment. So it's hardly surprising that they've decided to address a literally sexier subject with their newest production Pretty Filthy, about the adult entertainment industry. Featuring songs with such titles as "Squirting 101" and "Waiting for Wood," this breezily entertaining musical is, for obvious reasons, likely to become this innovative company's most popular offering yet.
As is their usual custom, the piece was created via extensive research conducted by the troupe's members, who journeyed to the San Fernando Valley, that world capital of porn, to interview adult film stars, agents, directors and cameramen and to spend time on film sets. Judging by what we see onstage, the process must have been a blast.
Book writer Bess Wohl uses the story of a single performer as a connective tissue for the vignette-style piece featuring songs composed by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Fortress of Solitude). The main character is Becky (Alyse Alan Louis), a fresh-faced young woman desperate to break free from her small town existence where, as she sings in the musical number "What If I Like It," "You only get $7.20 an hour/Working the weekend shift at Hardees." Journeying to California, she quickly finds an agent and is transformed into "Taylor St. Ives." (One of the show's interesting tidbits of information is that it costs five dollars to register a porn name).
Other recurring characters include a veteran adult film star, Georgina Congress (Luba Mason), who puts up many of her younger co-stars at her communal home dubbed the "Porn House," and Becky's boyfriend Bobby (Marrick Smith), who accompanies her to California and becomes an adult film performer himself.
The show paints a fairly benevolent picture of the porn industry, largely ignoring such issues as sexually transmitted diseases, drug use, underage performers, etc. But it does explore some interesting issues, such as the difficulties porn actors have in maintaining real-life relationships and, in a reversal of most employment situations, the relatively little respect given to male performers…except, of course, when it comes to gay porn.
There are many amusing moments along the way, such as when one adult film performer, commenting about his porn name "Herschel Savage," explains that "I have to be true to be my Jewish identity," or when a director complains that staging a gang bang is "like putting together IKEA furniture." Reflecting porn's propensity for spoofing popular culture, one shoot features the performers wearing Star Trek outfits.
The way that changing technology has affected the industry is also addressed, from the video boom of the 1980s in the song "The First Video Stars" to the rise of the Internet that has essentially resulted in most consumers getting their porn for free.
"The thing is, if you want to go make it in porn, there's no porn to go make it in anymore," a distributor laments. "I got DVDs just sitting on shelves in my warehouse."
Breezily staged by the troupe's artistic director Steve Cosson who conceived it with Friedman and Wohl, the production features terrific performances by the eight-person ensemble, most of whom play multiple roles. Particularly outstanding are Broadway veteran Mason (Chicago, Jekyll & Hyde), deliciously droll as the veteran porn star who finds her career surging thanks to the growing interest in MILFs, and Steve Rosen, hilarious as a wide variety of characters. Friedman's bouncy score is great fun, with songs like "Impossible Girls" and "Squirting 101" featuring wittily ribald lyrics.
Definitely not for prudes, the show is indeed pretty filthy. But it's also pretty damn fun.
Cast: John Behlmann, Lulu Fall, Alyse Alan Louis, Luba Mason, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Steve Rosen, Marrick Smith, Jared Zirilli
Director: Steve Cosson
Music & lyrics: Michel Friedman
Book: Bess Wohl
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Music director: Nathan Dame
Set designer: Neil Patel
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Sound designer: Ken Travis
Projection designer: Darrel Maloney
Producer: Maedhbh McCullagh
Presented by The Civilians