Review: The Civilians’ “Pretty Filthy,” a Musical Take on the Porn Industry

Photo by Richard Termine.

I wasn’t expecting a big, jolly, laugh out loud Broadway style musical when I went to see The Civilians’ new show about the porn industry, “Pretty Filthy,” at the Abrons Arts Center, but that’s exactly what I got — red curtain and all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more human look into the “adult entertainment” industry. I can’t believe I am saying these things together, but I left having feelings for porn stars; they are real people after all — and I’m sure that was the point.

As is their usual approach, the company created the show in their singular ‘investigative theater’ style, immersing themselves in the subject matter and conducting extensive interviews and research. I wondered just how immersed they got on their trip to the Porn Capital of the World, California’s San Fernando Valley, i.e., “The Other Hollywood,” to find their cast of characters – the actors, agents, and producers who make up this industry. Let’s hope it was fun.

We meet the characters in an upbeat chorus line confessional dance number of sorts, where they reel off their chosen porno names like “Sunny Lane,” “Brown Sugar,” “Herschel Savage” (in keeping with his Jewish heritage), and a variety of takes on “Johnny Moorhead,” which elicited a lot of chuckles from the audience.

Becky (perky yet wholesome Alyse Alan Louis) is the spunky blonde ingénue from the Midwest who leads us into this world.   She dreams of porn stardom and becomes “Taylor St. Ives” (after the apricot scrub — how wholesome) and sings about the hardships of earning seven bucks an hour, working weekends at Hardees. Her all-American boyfriend, Bobby, aka “Dick Everhard” (Marrick Smith), follows her into the business.

There is the veteran porn star and single mom, “Georgina Congress,” wonderfully played by Luba Mason, the hunky “Jimmy Wood” (John Behlmann) who just wants provide a great service to everyone, and the “Jew Hefner” agent with a big heart, Sam Spiegel, hilariously played by Steve Rosen.

The show, smoothly directed by The Civilians’ Steve Cosson, is not just all about laughs. Bess Wohl’s lively book and Michael Friedmans sharp lyrics remind us that life on the other side of the 101 ain’t all sunshine and roses. The industry is struggling, no thanks to the Internet and changing tastes. We follow the characters through many porn guises as they try to stay afloat. These include gang-bang parody movies – Star Trek (my personal favorite), and Georgina’s “Porn House” reality show–one big happy family, living porn-fully together.

Georgina, whose star rose during the booming ’80s, talks about the ups and downs of life in the pornography industry and reminisces about the days when her cohorts were “The First Video Stars,” selling millions of videos for $80 a pop.  Ricardo Montelban and Madonna were her neighbors. Now she is designated to the mommy ‘cougar’ roles, but takes pride none the less in her place as the “been there, done that” elder, helping to initiate the Taylor St. Ives of the future.

Maria-Christina Oliveras, playing a documentary filmmaker who couldn’t resist the temptation to make art out of porn – and get a fat paycheck doing so — tells us “These women chose to be here. When you say they are exploited it assumes they don’t like sex.”

A dose of realty sets in as we are reminded that “Pretty Filthy” is about porn, and that these are the words of real people. That is the touching part. When star couple “Oscar Gerhard” (Rosen) and “Holly Donovan” (Oliveras) address the audience, holding each other lovingly, and sing about their impending retirement to a quite little house and Holly’s new career making “applesauce,” we see the real people behind the names.

Is there life after porn someone asks? Well for Becky, now stuck in the live chat world of online porn, which is not exactly what she had in mind, her future is unknown. For the rest? Let’s hope so.

Pretty Filthy is directed by Steve Cosson with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. The book is by Bess Wohl. Through March 1, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. $55 at Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street.

Robin Schatell has lived in the Lower East Side for ten years, and has worked in the arts for over 20 years, developing innovative programs and events from concept to production, and presenting adventurous new work by emerging and established artists.