Venus in Fur
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
January 23, 2010
The thing about Venus in Fur—David Ives's present-set "adaptation" of Leopold Sacher-Masoch's erotic novel of the same title from 1870—is that if the last 45 minutes weren't as mind-boggling as they are, it would be a fascinating, entirely worthwhile piece of theatre. But as it stands, this production at the Classic Stage Company under the direction of Walter Bobbie is only truly worth it for one thing: the performance of a newcomer named Nina Arianda.
Venus in Fur starts out promisingly enough. Ives has tried to concoct a play using the novel as a reference point. It is set in an audition room, circa 2010, where Thomas (played by the film actor Wes Bentley) is auditioning actresses for the female role in his stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's novel, which, boiling it down, is about a man's desire to be sexually dominated by a woman. Enter Arianda's Vanda (who shares a name with the character in the book), late to her audition, not that she's on the audition list at all, with a bag full of costumes.
She convinces him to audition her and they begin reading Thomas's play (which he also happens to be directing). Even though he's engaged to be married, he is, we come to find out, sexually repressed and may or may not desire to be dominated, just like the male character in the book. Vanda, who spends the entire show in a dog collar and what amounts to a dominatrix outfit (costumes by Anita Yavitch), is not repressed. Soon, naturally, the lines between reality and fiction are blurred. Power struggles ensue. And it's very blurry.
I would imagine that Ives is trying to create was a work that parallels the original, but, after the first 45 minutes, it starts going around in circles. As the lines between "reality" and "fiction" got fuzzier, I started to lose interest. Ives, I think, is trying to show that the power struggle between men and women today is the same as the power struggle between men and women when the book was written. Unfortunately, the play doesn't really achieve this. The end, a let-down, is groan-inducing, for both the curtain line and the fact that something so promising has fizzled out.
One of the reasons that it's so promising is Arianda, a 2009 NYU Graduate Acting program graduate, a real find for the world of New York City theater. Through her deft comedic skills, she masterfully pulls off the opening moments, when she convinces Thomas to actually read with her, despite his protestations. She is mighty fine here, playing a young woman the way Thomas has just described all of young women who came to audition to his fiancee on his cell phone: "six-year-olds on helium." Then, she manages to switch styles, flawlessly, to create fully drawn characters in the "play."
She has the showy role; Thomas is stiff and Bentley plays him appropriately. It's a capable performance, nothing more, nothing less.
Bobbie's staging lacks titillation, there's really nothing sexy about anything that goes on (though I concede that if dominatrix outfits and dog collars are your thing, you may disagree.) If this were a two act play, one could say it has second act troubles. Too bad the last 45 minutes don't live up to the first.