On the Culture Front: Father John Misty, Pretty Filthy and More

The Civilians have been working on "Pretty Filthy," their musical about the porn business, for a pretty, pretty long time. I first caught a glimpse of it years back when they performed a selection of songs cabaret style at Joe's Pub. What grasped me immediately was the complexity of emotions packed into each one. On stage at the Abrons Arts Center in a fully-realized production helmed by artistic director Steve Cosson, they burst to life. The protagonist who emerges is Becky, a sweet and sexually adventurous teenage girl from "somewhere in America" who wants to get into porn for the money and the sex. She moves to LA with her boyfriend and they both become stars of sorts. Cosson and his team that included playwright Bess Wohl, never paint the actors, directors and producers they meet as victims. Rather, they come across as passionate people living a fracture of the American dream, compromising some of their ambition and promise but getting paid well in return. Not unlike us in the audience, perhaps? This creates a powerful intimacy that resonates in Michael Friedman's songs that range from silly ("Squirting 101," accompanied by videos of gushing fountains and staging reminiscent of "Phantom of the Opera) to thought-provoking ("Porn Capitalism") to heartfelt ("What if I Like It). While it's still early in the year, I wouldn't be surprised if "Pretty Filthy" turns out to be one of the best musicals of 2015.

Cynthia Nixon is making a stellar directorial debut with Joel Drake Johnson's quietly searing new play "Rasheeda Speaking," that uses subtlety to lay bare the unspoken racism that still courses through our veins as a country. Never a polemic, this clever one-act produced by the New Group at the Signature Center is a bit of a whodunnit for racism that provokes judgments of its characters and then later forces you to challenge them. It would ruin it to say too much more except this is a must see.

I wish I could say the same for David Greig's "The Events" at New York Theatre Workshop. I heard nothing but lavish praise for the show produced by the Actors Touring Company and Young Vic when I was in London this past fall and was giddy when I took my seat for a recent performance. A different chorus takes the stage with the two actors each night. This night it was the Stop Shopping Choir. Each member brought their own personality quirks - a young woman in a loudly decorated sweater swayed heavily while an older William Burroughs-esque man had a more measured response - giving the feeling that the community was on stage. The play itself, which unfolds in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, feels cold and even naïve.

On the music front, Father John Misty took the stage on Thursday for a sold out show at Rouge Trade and the energy of the crowd was palpable. More than a few drunken enthusiasts shouted out requests or other utterances, but Misty aka Joshua Tillman was unflappable. He even launched into an impromptu q&a mid-show. When one fan shouted from the rafters, "what's your favorite flavor of ice cream?" he answered, "despair" without missing a beat. Another question, "are you happy?" elicited a sigh from Tillman and a subsequent rare moment of silence from the audience. The hundred-minute set spanned both of his albums and ended with the thick-bearded troubadour descending into the crowd mid-song to dole out hugs. A "mandatory encore" included a cover of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man," summing up audience sentiment.