Monday, March 5, 2012

Venus in Fur: Role Playing

Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda stars in Venus in Fur

Everyone who teaches in a theatre department knows David Ives’s one-act plays, ingenious small-scale amusements that are ideal for undergraduate directors. (They’re collected under the title All in the Timing.) He’s also the go-to playwright for the Encores! series when alterations to the books of various musicals are asked for, and he adapted Mark Twain’s Is He Dead? when it finally received a New York production five years ago. But his two-hander Venus in Fur is the first original full-length comedy I’ve seen of his, and it’s very accomplished. It’s also enjoying considerable success in New York: it played two sold-out runs off Broadway before its current Broadway iteration at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. In all three the spectacularly funny Nina Arianda has starred as an aggressive young actress who talks a playwright (Hugh Dancy, replacing Wes Bentley) into letting her audition for him at the end of a long, wearying, fruitless day.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Arianda has appeared in a bunch of movies in the last year – Win Win, Midnight in Paris, Tower Heist and Higher Ground – without garnering much attention, but on stage she’s electrifying. She’s also an amazingly outsize physical specimen, with Cyd Charisse-like legs that look like they could wrap around a man and choke the life out of him, an attenuated torso, a swan neck and enormous hands. At one point she leans over a desk and her torso seems to be at right angles to the rest of her. Vanda, the character she’s playing, is an eccentric, insistent, outspoken woman, and Thomas, the playwright, finds it impossible to say no to her. When she shows up he’s about to pack up and go home to his fiancĂ©e, and her name isn’t on the list, but she reels off a list of calamities culminating in her lateness for the audition that leaves him helpless. She says she got the scene for the reading from her agent but he can’t figure out how, and as the audition proceeds it becomes clear that she’s somehow read not only the scene but the entire play and even studied its source material. That’s Sacher-Masoch’s scandalous nineteenth-century novel Venus in Fur, about a young man who persuades a woman to couple with him in the acting out of masochistic sexual fantasies that hatched in his libido as a result of his cruel treatment by the aunt who brought him up. (This play would make a cunning double bill with Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure, the play about Jung and his patient Sabina that he adapted for the movie A Dangerous Method.) Vanda hauls in a bag of costumes and props to accessorize her audition; it’s the kind of actorish behavior that drives Thomas nuts, but her whole wacky procedure isn’t a mere substitution for real acting. When she gets into the scene, affecting a dark British accent and a high-comic style, she’s mysteriously transformed into precisely the woman he’s been trying to dramatize. And as he reads with her (at one point tricked up in a waistcoat that fits him perfectly, which she whips out of her satchel) he becomes the turned-on hero of his own play. The audition goes on and on; at one point she even suggests they improvise a scene from the book that he left out of his adaptation. And as they move in and out of their roles, Arianda and Dancy working the on-a-dime shifts with tantalizing deftness, Thomas, like any playwright who unexpectedly finds the ideal embodiment of his heroine, falls more and more under Vanda’s spell.
Vanda also arrives with a set of intellectual objections to the play (and the novel), mostly sociological and feminist. She calls it a work about child abuse; the fancy turnabout power struggle doesn’t impress her – she thinks it’s misogynistic and that in the end the woman doesn’t have any power. What he sees as her irrelevant, imposed twenty-first-century attitudinizing infuriates him: “How can you be so stupid? Really?” he explodes. “How can you be so good at playing her, and be so fucking stupid about her? And about everything else in this play.” She isn’t cowed; she demands an apology and begins to gather her things. He has to accede – he can’t stand the thought that his Venus in fur might walk out the door before he’s signed her to star in his play.

The play has a surprise twist (the first beat prepares us for it) but long before the end Arianda has us, like Thomas, in thrall to her. Dancy partners her well – his performance is mostly a clever series of double takes – but the evening belongs to her. Few plays, let alone comedies, give an actress a starring role of this quality (The Talking Cure does); few comediennes could pull it off. Arianda and Ives are mutual beneficiaries.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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