NEW YORK – Boot fetishists and bondage fanatics must be among the more under-served Broadway demographics, so both groups should be heartened by the arrival of Venus in Fur. As Hugh Dancy eases Nina Arianda into a pair of black patent thigh-highs, she arches her back like a cat throughout the exquisitely protracted zipping-up process. The audience holds its collective breath during what is surely the most erotically charged scene playing on a New York stage right now.
Premiered Off Broadway last season at Classic Stage Company, David Ives’ play provided a sensational platform for newcomer Arianda, who had critics grasping for superlatives to describe her preternatural command of physical comedy and her quicksilver transitions from ditz to dominatrix.
Trading up from Wes Bentley, her original co-star in the two-character piece, Arianda now has an accomplice/adversary who is every bit her equal. Dancy arguably has never been better. Even if the cat-and-mouse games of Ives’ comedy with teeth become too attenuated, the players remain transfixing in Walter Bobbie’s mostly vigorous production.
The action takes place in a modest New York rehearsal studio on a stormy evening. Thunderclaps rip through the atmosphere, causing the lights to flicker. Dancy opens mid-rant on his cell phone as Thomas Novachek, a playwright and first-time director whose inflated ego and superior attitude toward women are immediately apparent. “Whatever happened to femininity?” he rails, bemoaning the day’s parade of auditioning bubble-heads who “sound like six-year-olds on helium.”
From this spiky opening speech and the play’s title, it’s a good bet that no man is going to disparage the sexual power and intellect of women without sooner or later being cut down to size by Aphrodite or one of her mortal descendants.
Enter Vanda (Arianda). She’s late, rain-drenched, flustered and unscheduled for an audition for the lead role — uncannily named Vanda von Dunayev — in Thomas’ play. Adapted from the 1870 Austrian novella by the etymological father of masochism, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, it chronicles the obsessive sexual and emotional tussle between Dunayev and Severin Kushemski, a Viennese sophisticate with a thing for luxuriant pelts and total submission. He begs to be her slave and gets more than he bargained for. “Basically, it’s S&M porn,” ventures the actress.
Having given up in exasperation and sent home the reader, Thomas makes every attempt to dispatch the daffy, seemingly unhinged Vanda. But she won’t be put off. With a hilarious mix of guilelessness and indomitable cunning, she launches from a few exploratory textual questions into a fully-formed characterization, swapping her nasal honk for cultured European tones. Stunned by her instant command, Thomas encourages her to read on, taking the part of Kushemski himself.
Ives sneaks in hints to Thomas – and to the audience – that Vanda is more than she appears to be. There’s the coincidence of her name; the fact she has the role down pat despite claiming only to have glanced over the script on the subway; the startling insights into 19th century mores. She also happens to have a period gown and Viennese topcoat among her stash of more outré kink-wear. But what’s more intriguing is the way she needles Thomas about his own proclivities and their overlap with those of Kushemski, giving an accurate reading of his unseen fiancée supposedly based on guesswork.
The push-pull dynamic of the power play between director and actress, as well as between the two characters in the play-within-the-play, gets a little repetitious in the one-act’s saggy mid-section. The production seems unwisely to have stretched by 10 minutes or so since its Off Broadway run, and Ives toys around for too long with the blurred lines between real-world and fictional figures, while Bobbie lets the subjugation-degradation tango grow tired.
The views here on sexual liberation remain muddy, and the writing is sharper on comedy than psychological insight. But as a neatly balanced pas de deux, Venus in Fur makes a tasty showcase for the right actors.
Whether it’s time at the gym or just having a few more years on the clock, Dancy has transformed himself of late from a wispy Brit pretty boy to a self-possessed man. That makes both the pain and pleasure of his feminized humiliation quite sexy. Just watch the tension in his neck and shoulders when Vanda really lets him know who’s in charge.
Arianda is particularly delicious in the comic whirlwind of the early action. But it’s when Vanda starts bouncing between feigned deference and sly supremacy – many times in each scene and often mid-sentence — that the actress shows remarkable control. Since the original run of Venus in Fur, she has made a Tony-nominated Broadway debut in Born Yesterday and turned up in featured roles onscreen in Midnight in Paris, Win Win and Tower Heist. Her unconventional looks and oddball persona make it tough to predict the direction her career will take, but she’s unquestionably a talent to watch.
Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (Through Dec. 18)
Cast: Nina Arianda, Hugh Dancy
Director: Walter Bobbie
Playwright: David Ives
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, by special arrangement with Jon B. Platt, Scott Landis, Classic Stage Company