Venus in Fur, the excellent new play by David Ives currently playing the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is a godsend in this era of overtly commercialized Broadway plays which rely more on name recognition than actual talent. Director Walter Bobbie guides two rising theatrical talents through this erotically charged and utterly fascinating new play that provides more food for thought in ninety minutes than many lesser works offer in two-plus hours.
The play’s premise is deceptively simple. Writer/director Thomas (Hugh Dancy) is struggling to find the perfect actress to portray the role of Wanda in his adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs. At the end of a long day of fruitless auditioning, Thomas reluctantly agrees to see one last actress, the frazzled and seemingly dim-witted Vanda (Nina Arianda). But this after-hours audition quickly evolves into a complicated game of cat and mouse that bears an eerie semblance to the sadomasochistic work being adapted.
Ives has crafted an intricate character study full of twists and turns, a truly excellent work that will reward multiple viewings. He expertly handles both the elevated classical dialogue of the play-within-a-play and the contemporary dialogue Vanda and Thomas use when speaking as themselves. He provides a range of insights into gender politics and dominant/submissive relationships without ever seeming preachy or trite, and leaves things open to interpretation without coming across as vague or pretentious. And if all of those weighty themes sound daunting, fear not; the play has a wicked sense of humor that will leave you laughing throughout.
Bringing Ives’ script to delicious, convincing life are two powerhouse performances by two equally gifted actors. Nina Arianda, a Tony-nominee for last season’s Born Yesterday revival, is absolutely captivating as Vanda, reprising her critically lauded work from the 2010 Off-Broadway production. Unlike the antiquated Yesterday, here Arianda has a script worthy of her considerable talents. She perfectly captures the neurotic and sometimes airheaded antics of a struggling actress, while remaining wholly believable during the character’s frequent and disarmingly insightful observations on the play for which she is auditioning. Her stellar handling of the classical scenes from the fictitious play-within-a-play make it immediately evident why Thomas seems compelled to prolong her audition, and from start to finish Arianda is a transfixing, magnetic presence.
Matching Arianda every step of the way is Hugh Dancy as Thomas. Dancy perfectly encapsulates the vainglorious nature of a certain type of creative without ever becoming unlikable. His performance effortlessly conveys Thomas’ conflicting feelings towards Vanda, believably alternating between annoyance with her shenanigans and childlike giddiness at the possibilities presented by her undeniable talent. He displays a palpable confusion as Vanda slowly begins to dominate the audition, and watching him attempt to wrest control back from her makes for fascinating theatre.
There are a few minor missteps in the production. The set design is rather bland, and the lighting errs a tad on the dark side. The play’s final five minutes take a turn for which the proceeding eighty-five don’t quite prepare you, although it ultimately adds to the play’s allure and thought-provoking nature. In short, Venus in Fur is must-see theatre, and is one of the highlights of the fall Broadway season.