Venus in Fur
Written by David Ives
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Location: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York, NY
Set Designer: John Lee Beatty, Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski, Costumes: Anita Yavich, Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners, Casting: James Calleri
Starring Nina Arianda, Hugh Dancy
At one point in this provocative two hander, Thomas (Hugh Dancy) expresses his desire to infuse his dialogue with the energy of a more literate age, a time when conversation itself was sexy. Like many moments in Venus in Fur, the comment is both organic to the story and subtly Pirandellian. Thomas, playwright and director, is speaking out of frustration: his new work in progress doesn’t feel complete. He doesn’t break character or turn aside to the audience. Yet his words could not more accurately encapsulate what we’re seeing on stage. There is no nudity here, and little literal graphic representation of the sensual pain and excruciating pleasure the characters experience. This is about the theory of brain as the primary sex organ, and by engaging the imagination of the audience, playwright David Ives has outspiced many of the more explicit treatments of the subject.
Self-referential constructs are of course, familiar to fans of David Ives’s earlier work. He first rose to prominence with All in the Timing and Mere Mortals and Others. These were collections of short pieces: glimpses into tiny but complete worlds. Each piece came with a kind of physics, a set of rules affecting the lives of the characters, to which Ives stuck scrupulously. Yet they were never clever in a smug or inaccessible fashion. The devices were always used to comically illuminate some aspect of the human condition — even when the humans were represented by monkeys, fireflies or works of art.
Venus in Fur, which takes place in real time, expands on the techniques Ives practiced with such mischievous mastery in his short form experimentations. Here, though, he’s faced with the challenge of a full length play with a cast of two, and therefore needs a premise that is both disciplined in its parameters and rife with possibilities. The play is, in a sense, a Battle Of The Sexes comedy. But Ives is well aware that today’s audiences have seen The Taming of the Shrew spun more times than a dreidl, and that modern gender equality has rendered many theatrical conventions trite and even offensive. His solution to this challenge is something in the nature of a play within a play, but here again, the material defies oversimplification.
As the show begins, Thomas fumes in the downscale office where he’s been holding auditions for the female lead in his new play. Venting over the phone to his offstage girlfriend, he complains of the lack of intelligence, talent and femininity found among young actresses (and, for that matter, young women in general). He’s about to give it up for the night, when in one walks one last applicant. “Coincidentally” this chatty creature has a similar first name as the character she aspires to play. Thomas informs her that she’s missed the audition. But Vanda insists. She’s come a long way in a brutal storm. Can’t Thomas just read with her? Reluctantly, he relents, expecting to dismiss her quickly and go meet his girlfriend for dinner. Vanda, in what appears to be a classic incidence of audition desperation, is clad in shiny black with a spiked collar. Hell, it’s an S & M porno play, isn’t it? Thomas, ever the pedant, explains that there’s much more to his drama than that. It’s an adaptation of Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s erotic masterpiece.
Thomas has little faith, but he is, of course, in for many surprises. Vanda wraps herself in a knit blanket – a stand in for the fur Sacher-Masoch so fervently fetishized – and startlingly becomes the baroness Wanda von Dunajew. She is commanding, regal, flirtatious, game for exploration. The text springs to life as Thomas, too, finds himself inhabiting both the coat and the character of the hapless nobleman who is held in Wanda’s thrall.
No sooner has the spell been cast, however, than Vanda reverts to her normal way of speaking. After the two discuss the text, she flies instantly back into character. Thomas is fascinated. Which Vanda is the real one? The eternal goddess or the ditzy millennial? He probes, but her story keeps mutating. She professes to have merely looked at the cover of Sacher-Masoch’s novel, but she knows the plot well enough to critique its misogynistic conclusion. She claims to have merely glanced at Thomas’s script, yet she can perform whole scenes off book. And how did she get her hands on a full script to begin with? Moreover, the gruff director soon finds it’s Vanda whose leading him, not the other way round. Like the novel’s protagonist, though, the more Thomas submits the more Vanda seems to be doing his bidding – enslaving him exactly according to his specifications. Vanda, of course, is hip to this dynamic, too, and more reversals follow. Like an accelerating carousel, the erotic chemistry between the two intensifies with each new turn until all inhibitions and false identities are burned away.
Director Walter Bobbie, a musical theater veteran, choreographs each beat with precise timing and draws raw, uninhibited performances from his actors. Anyone who has been through the process will recognize the exasperation, drive and excitement of Dancy’s eerily accurate portrayal of a playwright birthing a new piece (although few of us look as good doing it). He is an apt foil for Arianda, who navigates the hairpin turns of the story with ferocious speed and stunning comic imagination. An extra layer of wit is provided by John Lee Beatty’s intimate scenic design, Anita Yavich’s talismanic costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski’s mood enhancing lights.