The Civilians present a new musical about the adult entertainment industry.
Trigger warning: If you are offended by sex or its depiction through song and dance, do not see this musical or read this review.
Of course, if you're able to set aside prudishness for 90 minutes, you're in for a rare treat with The Civilians' Pretty Filthy, now making its world premiere at Abrons Arts Center. With music and lyrics by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), this tuneful journey through America's rapidly changing pornography landscape is fascinating and eye-opening — and not in the way you might expect.
Like many Civilians shows, much of the text is lifted directly from interviews. Company members traveled to California's San Fernando Valley (which is to adult entertainment what Silicon Valley is to tech) to get to know the subject firsthand. We meet a wide variety of characters, from seasoned veteran Georgina Congress (Luba Mason in a convincing and emotionally stirring performance) to working actress Brown Sugar (the funny and fiery Lulu Fall). Technicians, agents, and directors dance across the stage, offering their testimony. "All workers by nature in a capitalist society are exploited," documentarian-turned-porn-director Carrie (Maria-Christina Oliveras) responds to the notion that her work is exploitative of women.
Illustrating that point is our most consistent through line: the story of 18-year-old Becky (Alyse Alan Louis). She moves to California with her boyfriend Bobby (Marrick Smith) to star in adult films. She sing-explains, "You only get seven twenty an hour / Working the weekend shift at Hardees." If she's going to be exploited, why not get paid several hundred dollars an hour? We watch her transform into Taylor St. Ives, porn's hottest new performer. A meteoric rise gives way to parody shoots and eventually, webcamming full-time. This would seem a tragedy, yet we keep laughing.
Steve Rosen has us rolling in the aisles with a dizzying array of wigs and accents. One moment he's crass talent agent Sam Spiegel (nickname Jew Hefner), the next he's an erudite cameraman with a strong cinematic vision. He later sports Ron Jeremy hair as Oscar, one half of a porn power-couple. His song with Oliveras (who plays the other half with sugary sweetness) is a real highlight for its lyrical mix of smut and schmaltz.
The show walks a thin line between silly and serious, occasionally stumbling wildly from one side to the other. The "dudes commiserating" song "Waiting for Wood" (which Sam Pinkleton hilariously choreographs as if it were in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) elicits wild guffaws. That is, until Bobby sings about an actor's suicide following an inability to perform, slapping us in the face with real stakes. Should we feel guilty or devastated? Nervous laughter sprinkles across the audience, making the moment even more awkward.
That aside, Director Steve Cosson mostly keeps the show light. Like an indulgent parent, he gently pulls us into the shallow end of this taboo subject. A coy mention of escorting (the real source of income for many performers) is easy to miss if you're not expecting it. Costumer Emily Rebholz strays more toward caricature than realness. (I've never seen a gay porn actor wear undies that could have been purchased at Kmart.) She also keeps everyone covered up. All things considered, Pretty Filthy remains remarkably PG-13.
Scenic designer Neil Patel dedicates the upstage wall to a projection screen with doors that allow for quick entrances and exits. Darrel Maloney's projections do a lot of heavy lifting, filling in the cinematic gaps that would come naturally to a film documentary. The use of Busby Berkeley's "By a Waterfall" from the 1933 film Footlight Parade is particularly inspired in its illustration of the specific gift of Italian performer Fredo (a side-splitting portrayal by John Behlmann).
It's really impossible to walk away not having learned something. Book writer Bess Wohl gives us an entertaining primer on the economics of porn, an industry that has been completely transformed by the Internet, an insatiable content-consuming monster that demands to eat for free. The digital boom and bust of adult entertainment mirrors that of so many other professions including journalism, film, and music.
While the business has certainly taken a hit from the disruptive forces of technology, gross revenue in the United States still tops $5 billion annually according to Bloomberg Businessweek. (To put this in perspective, Broadway took in $1.36 billion in 2014, its best year ever.) Clearly, the market has spoken: Millions of Americans enjoy this form of entertainment. So why is it so taboo? As agent Spiegel so eloquently states, "You're a nation of hypocrites. You all jack off to us with one hand and deny us with the other." After seeing Pretty Filthy, you may never look at porn the same way again.