David Ives' "Venus in Fur" begins with an exasperated playwright-director complaining to his fiancee about his long day watching auditions. He's had to see 35 incompetent actresses.
Then the 36th comes barreling into the audition room many hours too late and proves more than he ever imagined. Of course, it helps if that actress is in real life none other than Nina Arianda.
The play, which caused much excitement off-Broadway last winter, has been brought to Broadway with the fearsome Arianda intact by The Manhattan Theatre Club, whose production opened Tuesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
This is a two-character drama that should come with an NC-17 rating – an exploration of sadomasochism that has Arianda dressed in tight leather, garters, her undies. Both she and British co-star Hugh Dancy take turns wearing a studded dog collar. "Mary Poppins," it ain't.
The play is inspired by Austrian novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's erotic 1870 book that depicts a couple deriving sexual pleasure from suffering pain and humiliation. Ives has used that as a starting point to delve into the notion of power and powerlessness, as well as deep, secret longings than transcend time and culture.
Ives constructs the contemporary character of playwright-director Thomas (Dancy), who is auditioning actresses for his new play adapted from Sacher-Masoch's novel. It's going poorly and a storm is raging outside when the beautiful Vanda (Arianda) comes in and seems a spectacularly poor match for the role – she's vulgar, only flipped through the play on the train and has brought a bag full of tawdry costumes.
"Just thought I'd kinda get into the part. I mean it's basically S&M right? The play?" she asks.
"Not exactly. And it does take place in 1870," he replies.
Vanda pleads for an audition and Thomas consents, against his better judgment. Then something startling happens: Vanda, this coarse actress with a skimpy resume, suddenly sparkles in the role of a regal woman from the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose lover tries to persuade her to dominate him.
Thomas and Vanda dip in and out of character as they interrogate the play-within-the-play for the rest of the 100-minute, intermissionless production, with Vanda gaining the upper hand as the audition continues. There are odd things about this woman: How did she get the whole script? How does she know so much about Thomas' private life? Had she already memorized the part?
All the action takes place in John Lee Beatty's grim rehearsal space, complete with metal table, coffee machine, lit-up exit sign and fluorescent lights. A huge metal heating pipe in the middle of the room gets multiple uses – a stand-in for a statue as well as a handy place to tie people up.
Arianda switches between her unsophisticated, contemporary character and the polished, late-19th-century European aristocrat with effortless ease and skill. Dancy, who takes the role over from Wes Bentley, keeps up as best he can, but gets tripped up sometimes in the midst of a shift. Adding to the complexity, both adopt foreign accents – she an upper-crust British voice when playing the aristocrat, and he an American when playing the contemporary Thomas.
Walter Bobbie's direction is taut and dangerous. It wonderfully mixes a mystery story of Vanda's real identity with a parody of the audition process, and an examination of Sacher-Masoch's preoccupation with power in two time periods.
As Ives' play progresses, Vanda suggests improvements to Thomas' script and direction, delves into his motivation and psyche, and eventually challenges his sexist attitudes. Thomas, meanwhile, takes on the characteristics of his masochistic play-within-the-play character as Vanda raises the erotic stakes.
The audience will understand that Thomas is being led into a trap long before he does and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski's lightening and Acme Sound Partners' thunder will help those who haven't gotten it yet. Along the way there's a bit of light bondage, some slapping and an erotic power play with a pair of steeply heeled, patent-leather dominatrix boots.
Dancy's transition from arrogant dictator to needy supplicant is first class, but Tony Award-nominated Arianda is simply fearsome. Her ability to go from dumb to powerful (also on show last season in the Broadway revival of "Born Yesterday") is remarkable and her physicality here, from her Noo Yawk accent to crossing her legs like a longshoreman in a frilly dress, is thrilling.
The last line of the play is "Hail, Aphrodite!" but it might as well be "Hail, Arianda!"
Whoever said lightning doesn’t strike twice hasn’t seen Nina Arianda reprise her breakout role in David Ives’ clever but repetitive comedy “Venus in Fur.”
Playing Vanda, a seemingly ditzy and desperate actress auditioning for a job, she’s so funny, smart and sexy that watching her brings unexpected jolts like an electrical shock.
In that way, nothing is different about the play on Broadway, where it opened last night, and its premiere in early 2010 at Classic Stage Company months after Arianda earned her master’s at NYU.
But something significant has changed. Hugh Dancy now inhabits the role of Thomas, the writer-director reading with Vanda and seemingly (again, that word) holds all the cards.
The British star known for “Confessions of a Shopaholic” on film and “Journey’s End” and “The Pride” on stage replaces Wes Bentley (“American Beauty”). Dancy has great charisma and expertly captures Thomas’ ever-shifting views of Vanda.
In effect, he levels the playing field, and that’s essential. The play is a tug-of-war for power between a man and a woman. You need a fair fight.
The action unspools in a nondescript rehearsal room on a stormy night. Thomas has been on the hunt for an actress with the chops to star in his dramatization of “Venus in Furs,” the 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave masochism its name.
Vanda arrives hours late, sopping wet and dropping F-bombs. She appears totally wrong for the role of a 19th-century blue blood who slowly but surely dominates a man — body, mind and spirit.
Her superficial take on the kinky story doesn’t raise confidence, either. “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism,” she declares. “I’m in the theater.”
But Vanda possesses an uncanny understanding of the role and nails foreign accents Streep-style. What’s happening in the rehearsal space mirrors Thomas’ drama and the original book. It makes for a tasty S&M-flavored triple-layer cake of a play.
Director Walter Bobbie’s swift staging matches the snap and pop of the tangy one-liners Ives (“All in the Timing,” “School for Lies”) has packed into the work.
But he’s also built in redundancy. After a fantastic first hour, the story restates what’s already been said. This issue nagged in the downtown premiere and now the Manhattan Theatre Club production has taken on an additional 15 minutes.
That’s less glaring and irritating now because both actors are so terrific together. Dancy by turns comes off annoyed, mystified, tickled, turned on, scared to death.
Arianda, who was up for a Tony last season for “Born Yesterday,” is slapstick funny (cue the wet umbrella), dim, seductive, manipulative and controlling.
She’s like a living mood ring — in black thigh-high boots and a mini.
There’s a divan in “Venus in Fur,” and it’s pretty versatile. At first it’s a potential casting couch -- after all, the play takes place during an audition in which an actress, Vanda (Nina Arianda), tries to persuade a writer/director, Thomas (Hugh Dancy), to hire her.
But David Ives’ slick comedy is also about two people ferreting out the truth about each other, and in that respect the couch is a Freudian accessory. The pair act out the play within the play, and unearth secret desires as they engage in erotically charged power games. Role-playing takes on a whole new meaning.
Arianda created her role in the play’s off-Broadway premiere last year, and she’s only refined it since. Her big entrance, disheveled and cursing for arriving late for her audition, is fantastically funny -- no surprise to those who saw Arianda’s Tony-nominated performance in last spring’s “Born Yesterday.”
Vanda is joyously dim and breathlessly vulgar, even as she claims, “Usually I’m really demure and s - - t.”
She looks 100 percent wrong for Thomas’ project: a highbrow stage adaptation of “Venus in Furs,” Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic 19th-century S&M novel. And yet, by the end, Vanda will feel right in every respect, including some pretty fantastical ones.
Ives and director Walter Bobbie -- the team responsible for the hilarious “The School for Lies” in May -- take off at breakneck speed, and the stars trade zingers with ease.
The pace then shifts down to a mellow trot as Vanda goads Thomas into facing his innermost fantasies. Reading his script aloud, they weave in and out of character, to the point where you’re not sure what -- or who -- is real or not.
Vanda is more herself reading the part of the play’s dominatrix -- named, not coincidentally, Vanda -- than as a contemporary New York actress. But even at her ditziest, she’s in control, revealing new shades of his own work to Thomas: “He’s an oddity,” Vanda says of his submissive male lead. “She’s a commodity. Like all women in 1870-whatever.”
Once Vanda’s agenda becomes clearer, the play starts running in circles. Ives bogs down in his own cleverness, and “Venus in Fur” eventually loses steam. Still, the leads’ natural chemistry makes up for a lot -- and it’s fun being left to ponder who’s on top.
Lightning flashes intermittently throughout “Venus in Fur,” the spooky sex comedy by David Ives that sizzled open on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on Tuesday night. But you’re not really likely to notice. The flickering of those stage lights barely registers beside the incandescent Nina Arianda, the sensational young actress recreating the role that made her a name to watch when she first starred in the play Off Broadway. Portraying an actress giving the audition of a lifetime, Ms. Arianda is giving the first must-see performance of the Broadway season, a bravura turn that burns so brightly you can almost feel the heat on your face.
To describe Mr. Ives’s play as a sex comedy may conjure images of creaky old farces involving philandering bosses and naughty secretaries. But while it’s as funny as any play currently on Broadway, “Venus in Fur,” stylishly directed by Walter Bobbie, is also something darker, stranger and altogether more delicious: a suspense-packed study of the erotics (and the semiotics) of power, in which the two participants — the terrific Hugh Dancy portrays the writer-director hosting the audition — prove to be seriously, almost scarily adept.
The plays opens with a thunderclap, as Ms. Arianda’s Vanda staggers into the generic room where Mr. Dancy’s Thomas is getting ready to wrap up his day, having failed to find the actress he was hoping for. In a tempest of irritation and mortification, Vanda rails at the subway, the rain and the fates, spewing expletives about the creepy guy who was feeling her up on the train.
She is hours late and knows she’s probably blown her chances, but proceeds to cajole, apologize and charm Thomas into hearing her out, flickering between abjection and steely insistence, modes that will prove to be unusually appropriate for the role she’s come to try out for.
Ms. Arianda is the best physical comedian the stage has produced in some time, as affirmed by her physically exuberant performance in the Broadway revival of “Born Yesterday” last spring. Here her klutzy ballet of desperation as Vanda wrestles with a recalcitrant umbrella, roots around in her bag for a costume and then suddenly strips down to her saucy black lingerie, is a dazzling comic set piece.
Funnier still is Vanda’s attempt to wriggle into the ruffled white dress she’s bought to play the character in question, a 19th-century European noblewoman. It’s like watching a manic cat wreaking havoc on a flocked Christmas tree.
When Thomas tries to dismiss her, Vanda slumps into a despairing monologue about the humiliating life of a struggling actress. After he puts her off with the glib line that they’re looking for “somebody a little different,” she stops him short with a blunt rebuttal. “Somebody who isn’t me,” she says, the last of her exuberance draining away into resignation. “I’m too young, I’m too old. I’m too big, I’m too small. My résumé’s not long enough. O.K.”
It’s more her force of will than his sympathy that finally carries the day, but soon Vanda has pulled out the coffee-stained script she’s acquired, rather mysteriously, and has leapt into character with a conviction that both thrills and unsettles Thomas. The role she’s hoping to snare is the female lead in Thomas’s adaptation of the 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch that gives Mr. Ives’s play its title. As it happens the character is also named Vanda: eerie coincidence or a calculated put-on? (Both are technically named Wanda, but Vanda’s parents pronounced her name with a V, and it stuck.)
“Basically it’s S-and-M porn,” Vanda bluntly asserts about the script, riling the self-important Thomas, who corrects her with a half-hidden snarl. “ ‘Venus in Fur’ is a great love story,” he lectures. “It’s a serious novel. It’s a central text of world literature.” (Vanda’s retort when she discovers that Sacher-Masoch was — duh! — the guy for whom masochism was named is too hilarious to spoil.)
It is when Vanda and Thomas begin performing their roles in his play — the nobleman Kushemski, whose youthful encounter with a reed-wielding aunt has given him a taste for the pleasure in pain, and Vanda Dunayev, the woman he meets at a resort and implores to subjugate him — that the psychosexual fun and games in “Venus in Fur” really begin.
The mysteries begin to multiply too. How exactly is it that Vanda, who claims to have just glanced through the script on the subway, is practically word-perfect in the role, not to mention so commanding that Thomas is almost embarrassed to be reading opposite her? And while she manages to wheedle a little information from him about his personal life — Thomas’s fiancée, Stacy, keeps calling on his cellphone — Vanda seems to know more about him than she reasonably should.
Ms. Arianda’s performance is so electrifying that a lesser talent than Mr. Dancy might fade into the scenery. But Mr. Dancy, the British actor with a long film résumé who appeared on Broadway in “Journey’s End,” holds his own and then some in the role of Thomas. As Vanda slowly takes control of the room, insisting that Thomas pour himself more deeply into the role as she gathers sexual steam as the imperious dominatrix, Mr. Dancy makes us feel the sweat of self-revelation that begins to unnerve Thomas.
His willingness to dive head-first into the psychology of the role, going so far as to improvise a scene in which the goddess Venus toys with Kushemski, so upends the traditional power relationship between director and actress that he fights hard to keep his bearings. Vanda, meanwhile, repeatedly steps outside her role to berate or interrogate Thomas about the real dynamics of the relationship in the play: Is the woman wielding the whip in charge, or does Kushemski really dictate the terms of their affair?
It would be no fun to give away much more detail because the mysteries of Vanda’s motives and Thomas’s true desires are what keep the tension on the boil for the play’s running time of a little more than 90 minutes. The excitement in watching “Venus in Fur” is in not knowing exactly what the emotional and sexual stakes really are.
When Vanda compliments him on his thorough grasp of his play and its characters, Thomas makes a telling comment about the elusive nature of self-knowledge. “Sometimes today I felt as if I didn’t know the first thing about them — or this play,” he says. “Suddenly, an actor turns to you and says, ‘What should I do, who am I right here,’ and you have no idea. You can’t remember who you are, much less what they’re supposed to be.”
I’m not sure Mr. Ives himself has settled firmly on a resolution to the play’s central mystery — the motives and identity of the elusive Vanda — but who cares? With the commanding Ms. Arianda giving a performance of such intoxicating allure, “Venus in Fur” provides a seriously smart and very funny stage seminar on the destabilizing nature of sexual desire: vanilla-flavored, kink-festooned or anything in between.
"Venus in Fur," David Ives' cheeky adaptation of Leopold Sacher-Masoch's erotic 1870 novel and originally mounted at the Classic Stage Company, improves a lot in this Broadway transfer. Chalk that up to helmer Walter Bobbie's savvy re-casting of one of the players in this two-hander: In his confident turn as a modern-day playwright-director keen on exploring the sado-masochistic sexual dynamic, Hugh Dancy gives hot co-star Nina Arianda someone substantial to play to. Play is still overwritten and pretentious, but it's a whole lot sexier with this well-matched pair taking turns at playing master and slave.
Playwright Thomas Novachek (Dancy) disrespects the goddess of love from his first speech, delivered on a cell phone, in which he contemptuously dismisses the 35 actresses he has auditioned that day to play the heroine of his play. The crack of thunder and lightning that cuts off his call and dims the lights is a clear sign that this arrogant young man will live to regret his words.
But the woman who bursts into the rehearsal studio is no angry goddess -- just another unsuitable actress, burdened with character props and furiously cursing herself for missing the audition. As deliciously played by Nina Arianda ("Born Yesterday"), Vanda Jordan is a caricature of the dumb actress Thomas has been railing about. But Thomas is something of a caricature himself, of the sadistic director who asserts his power over his actors by humiliating them.
Vanda wins the first round of this battle of the sexes when she wheedles Thomas into letting her audition. It's a stunning moment when this dizzy creature drops the vulgar manner and slips effortlessly into the role of Vanda von Dunayev, the mysterious temptress in Sacher-Masoch's kinky novel and the heroine of Thomas's play. Arianda delivers the same quicksilver performance she gave Off Broadway, only this time she doesn't have to carry the whole show by herself.
Dancy ("Martha Marcy May Marlene") has his fun with the insufferable Thomas, but he really gets into the game after Vanda talks the playwright into reading opposite her in the role of Kushemski, the masochistic aristocrat who can only find sexual pleasure under the booted heel of a dominatrix.
Vanda is happy to play that part -- and she's got the boots to make a convincing job of it. Strangely, she also seems to have intimate knowledge of both the script and the character she plays. By the time she and Thomas have broken out the whips and dog collars, both Arianda and Dancy have worked up a nice head of steam. (Although whatever made otherwise astute costumer Anita Yavich think that zipping up a zipper could be as erotic as lacing up a leather boot?)
But even at under two hours, the play still feels overworked, padded with repetitive seduction scenes and overwrought psycho-sexual arguments -- much of it delivered in stilted 19th-century locutions. Talk about sadism.