No actual blood is shed during a performance of Venus in Fur, the startling sex comedy written by David Ives and directed by Walter Bobbie, currently at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. Starring the fantastic Hugh Dancy and the luminous Nina Arianda, Ives’ play is a brutal and violent battle of wits, power and the sexes, and is both thought-provoking and extremely satisfying.
It is clear from the opening scene, filled with ominous claps of thunder and lightning, that this is not your usual audition-room theater comedy. Thomas, (Dancy), the writer/director of the play Venus in Fur, is lamenting the lack of suitable actresses to play the lead role in his new production when in bursts Vanda (Arianda), a flustered and frazzled young actress hours late for her audition. Dripping with rain and filled with excuses for her tardiness, she laments the delayed trains and the storm, hurling profanities left and right while insisting she is “like, perfect for the part.” Even though she is not on the audition list, and Thomas immediately thinks she is all wrong for the role, Vanda cajoles and convinces him to read the first scene with her.
The play, adapted by Thomas from the 19th-century novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, explores the relationship between Vanda Dunayev and Kushemski, who was beaten with a reed by his aunt as a child and grew into a man longing for the pleasure in pain. Immediately succumbing to the charms of Vanda after their first meeting, he pleads for the chance to be hurt by her. She reluctantly consents and the two begin their own battle of power and deception. As the modern-day Thomas and Vanda read the play, the lines between acting and reality are blurred, and is not clear where the audition ends and reality begins. The eerie mood of ominous foreshadowing is cast by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting on John Lee Beatty’s sparse, spacious set.
Arianda, who dazzled audiences in the off-Broadway production of Venus in Fur before making her Broadway debut as Billie in Born Yesterday, returns to the role of Vanda and continues to shine. Her transformation from a daffy, insecure actress into poised, powerful royalty and then into something and someone else altogether is both startling and illuminating. Slipping between the part of the brash, outspoken actress on an audition to the haughty, ethereal character in Thomas’ play to the goddess Aphrodite in an improvised scene with Thomas, she easily inhabits each of the characters bringing them to brilliant, illuminated life onstage.
A skilled comedic actress (I still laugh when remembering a silent scene of her playing cards in Born Yesterday), Arianda provides much-needed moments of levity throughout the show. Watching her wrestle with a stubborn umbrella or clumsily climb into a long dress she brought to enhance the effect of her audition (the costumes, which vary from suggestive to bluntly sexual, are by Anita Yavich) is nothing short of hilarious, while watching her move instantaneously in and out of the role of Vanda is fascinating. Witnessing her switch from a cold, European accent into a nasal Jersey twang or letting a hand that had been held stiffly in the air flop carelessly down onto the table is captivating.
The role of Vanda is rich with comedic and dramatic opportunities but also with mystery. To say Vanda is an unusual woman is the understatement of the season. Even though her agent was supposed to set up the audition for the character, whose name she just happens to share, and provide her with only the first scene of the play, she has the entire script perfectly memorized and inhabits the character seemingly effortlessly. When she proceeds to “guess” a few things about Thomas’ fiance, Stacy, the accuracy of her assumptions is startling. And when Thomas demands to know her identity, her answer only inspires more questions.
While a lesser actor might easily be eclipsed by Arianda, Dancy firmly holds his own onstage, giving an authentic vulnerability to the role of Thomas. While he frequently states he is an adapter, not an author, and that he does not relate to the main character of the novel, a self-professed masochist, Vanda refuses to believe him, going as far as to psychoanalyze him. A brilliantly subtle, nuanced actor, Dancy’s delicate features and understated manner suit the character of Thomas quite well. As he lets his guard down while struggling to maintain the upper hand in this “audition,” he adopts a European accent and even dons a green velvet frock while reading his own script, watching his reserve slip away as Vanda proceeds to thrill, delight and unsettle him with her performance and lure him on the journey with her is fascinating. Vanda repeatedly steps out of the role she is playing to discuss and debate the script with him, questioning who actually holds the power, who the villain is, and even if Thomas has based the main character on himself. And when he silently drapes Vanda’s body with a cloth representing the fur, the theater crackles with sexual electricity so strong it is almost tangible. Watching him gradually succumb to her powers – whatever it is they might be – is an exciting process.
There are so many textual layers of Venus in Fur that to explore them all would require the length of a thesis. Power, role-playing, the connections between love and violence, reality, and illusion are just a few. Vanda’s motives are never explained, nor is her background. One leaves the theater thinking deeply about Vanda and Thomas and wondering what else could have happened after the curtain went down.
“There can be nothing more sensuous than pain,” Kushemski states early in the script. That may be true for some, but watching a performance of Venus in Fur comes in a close second.