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Pretty Filthy: Theater review by Adam Feldman
When it comes to judging porn stars, where do we get off? “You’re a nation of hypocrites,” says a pugnaciously eloquent agent named Sam (the hilarious Steve Rosen) in Pretty Filthy, the Civilians' wry and racy quasidocumentary-cum-musical about the porn biz. “You all jack off to us with your left hand and deny us with your right.” Sam wrangles a stable of sex starlets, whom he lovingly calls his “blondies”—girls like Becky (Alyse Alan Louis), a teenage girl-next-door type who has come to Los Angeles to reinvent herself as Taylor St. Ives. Sam knows the dangers they face: It doesn’t take long for up-and-comers like Becky to get spat out or swallowed by an industry whose collective eye is constantly roaming to the next cute young thing.
Some performers do stick it out longer. Georgina Congress (a warmly tough, bruised Luba Mason) has been around since the video heyday of the 1980s and now plays cougar roles; Oscar (Rosen) and Holly (Maria-Christina Oliveras) are a lovey-dovey couple who have seemingly avoided the industry’s traps. Men in the business, such as Jimmy Wood (the absurdly studly John Behlmann), have their own anxieties about performance and face stiff competition from priapic rivals.
Bess Wohl’s script presents these characters, and many others, as part of a very amusing documentary-style collage in the style of many previous Civilians shows. But like A Chorus Line, which it evokes in its opening sequence, Pretty Filthy is actually a fictional version of stories gleaned from interviews and research. The writing is most evocative when it veers from the somewhat generic central plot strand about Becky and her boyfriend, Bobby (Marrick Smith, touchingly lost). But Michael Friedman’s songs are terrific: irony-laced show tunes that transcend pastiche, replete with cunning linguistic turns. (Becky’s first song is a nifty twist on the classic “I Want” number.) The versatile cast offers a great deal of talent, as well as eye candy, and Steve Cosson’s direction provides a smart mix of titillations and assessments.
A follow-up of sorts to Boogie Nights, which tracked porn's transition from film to video, Pretty Filthy is as much about lucre as lust: It looks at the new realities of the adult industry, now that streaming has killed the video stars. Can XXX be profitable when gratification is ever more instantaneous and ever more gratis? What liberation does it now promise? Ah, Becky: Times is hard. Times is hard.
Abrons Arts Center (see Off Broadway). Book by Bess Wohl. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Steve Cosson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam