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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
VENUS IN FUR
at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

DRESSED IN LEATHER
By JOANNE KAUFMAN

  Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda/ Ph: Joan Marcus

It’s just been one of those days: inclement weather and incompetent actresses. Thomas (Hugh Dancy), a playwright/director is packing up at the end of a fruitless casting session for his new work, and complaining in a phone call to his fiancée about the hopelessly shallow talent pool, when Vanda, a rain-soaked latecomer laden with bags and excuses, blows in like a mistral. This force of nature is played by the dazzling Nina Arianda, reprising her role in David Ives’ entertaining comedy-drama Venus in Fur, a two-hander that had a limited run off-Broadway early last year. 

Vanda curses the subway, the weather, her fate. She simply curses. In between expletives, she tries charm, begging, pleading – all, it seems, for naught. She’s missed her chance, Thomas tells her firmly. He’s heading out, he's got dinner plans, and anyway her name isn’t even on the audition list. But it quickly becomes clear that his insistence is no match for her brash determination. She coaxes, cozens, bullies him into submission.

Thomas’ play is an adaptation of Venus in Fur, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s erotic 1870 novel about an aristocrat and his obsessive object of desire, a young woman whom he draws into a passionate relationship, ceding to her all power, sexual (read: kinky) and otherwise.

“Basically, it’s S & M porn.” Such is Vanda’s brisk take on the project, an interpretation that enrages its creator. “Venus in Furs is a serious novel,” Thomas says icily. “It’s a great love story.”

Yeah, whatever. Vanda rummages through her bundles and extracts a long, demure white dress that she wiggles on over the leather and chains get-up that had been concealed under her raincoat. And maybe Thomas could help zip up the back. “Anyway,” she says, “you don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theater.”

The dowdy secretary, who takes off her spectacles, shakes her hair out of its bun and is suddenly, startlingly beautiful, has nothing on daffy Vanda. Briefly turning away and gargling some vocal exercises, she whirls back around and is Wanda, the character in Thomas’ play – all grace, elegance and spot-on English accent. And although Vanda claims to have barely glanced at the script on the subway, she appears to know the whole thing by heart.

With the recitation of each bit of dialogue from the play within the play, with each bit of close questioning from Vanda about her character and about Thomas’ motivation in writing the play – Arianda movin hilariously and seamlessly between Vanda and Wanda – life inexorably begins to imitate art.

The themes of Venus in Fur – the eroticism and violence of power playing –  are reminiscent of Genet’s The Balcony and The Maids. But there is such thing as too much of a good (naughty) thing. The gamesmanship grows wearisome as it becomes more repetitious. Rather more irksome is the play’s half-baked subplot, a mystery that’s never resolved. But perhaps mystery isn’t the right word under the circumstances; perhaps, better to call it a tease.Who exactly is Vanda? How does she know so much about Thomas and what is she after? The lack of chemistry between Arianda and a way, way out-of-his-league Dancy doesn’t help. But Walter Bobbie’s sharp direction and Arianda’s kitten-with-a-lip virtuosity count for a lot. So what if in the end the fur is a little faux.

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