Venus in Fur

It's revolutionary to me that the trend of hosting a Blogger's Night seems to be catching on in the New York theater scene. So we write a (badly-up-kept) blog, purely for our own enjoyment - and hopefully yours as well - with no external motives...and have the chance to receive a pair of complementary tickets to see a show? And then write about it? For fun?

What an awesome trend! Kudos to you, Broadway.

Last week, one half of Super Awesome Broadway Ninjas was able to make a mid-week trek to the city and take in Venus in Fur, a two-person play that began its New York run off Broadway at the Classic Stage Company in January 2010, was brought to Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre by Manhattan Theatre Club in October, and moved again to the Lyceum Theatre to play through June 17.

Going into the dark comedy, I had two expectations: 1) that it would be 90 minutes of good, kinky fun (Charles Isherwood's words, not mine), and 2) that Nina Arianda would be a revelation. Both expectations were exceeded. I also walked out wishing I could immediately head to the nearest library and read everything that playwright David Ives has ever written. (It was recently announced that he is working on a new musical with God of All Musical Theater Gods Stephen Sondheim...and after being exposed to his work for the first time with Venus in Fur, I am SO on board with this plan. Let's get to writing, fellows.)

Venus in Fur opens rather abruptly, with playwright Thomas (played by Mark Alhadeff at the performance I saw) lit by the dreaded intensity of florescent lights, multiplied by ten, on the phone and very frustrated after a long and unsuccessful day of auditioning actresses for his play, based on the 19th century novel "Venus in Furs" by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose last name inspired the term "masochism" (and another term as well, should you be clever enough to examine the initials of his last name). In another abrupt entrance, actress Vanda (Arianda) stumbles in, soaking wet with an umbrella that won't close, a wild assortment of costumes, an abundance of curse words that somehow become endearing, and a name that isn't on Thomas's list of appointments. Of course, Vanda convinces him to let her audition, for a character that curiously holds her same name, and also convinces the hesitant Thomas to read opposite her. The audition that ensues takes just about every twist and turn that you couldn't have thought of.

The most interesting part of the play for me was the way in which it examined the shift in patterns of dominance between men and women. Rather than just addressing the issue through dialogue, the play literally morphs into a discussion of the issue as the characters in Ives' play slowly merged with the characters in Thomas's play-within-the-play. At first, accented dialogue could be used to distinguish Vanda and Thomas from the roles they were playing, but suddenly it didn't matter who was who. One minute Vanda is begging Thomas for the chance to audition, and the next she holds power over him with the reveal of details of his personal life that she should or should not know. One minute Thomas is lamenting the shortcomings and failings of every actress who auditioned that day, and the next he's at the mercy of an actress who has many self-confessed shortcomings, but a certain manipulative power as well.

Director versus actress? Male versus female? Playwright versus character? All are upended. The ebb and flow of sympathies, gender dynamics, and sexual tension between Thomas and Vanda weave one of the more thought-provoking and dynamic relationships that I've seen onstage in a while. And this chameleon-like quality is where Nina Arianda shines. Her physicality is hilariously believable, and her line delivery (and Mr. Ives' writing) reminded me of "Modern Family," a fast-paced and really smart style that sling-shots jokes and puns left and right but leaves no time for that I-got-the-joke-ten-seconds-later chuckle.

Mr. Alhadeff, understudy to Hugh Dancy, was wonderful, and I found no flaws with his performance.
I particularly enjoyed a scene in which Thomas lamented the modern tendency to condense, categorize, and therefore oversimplify plays into something that they are not, or something which they transcend by far. Visually, I was intrigued that he is of shorter stature than Arianda, which made the power dynamic even more pronounced during certain scenes when the two stood face to face, until I was told that Arianda also towers over Mr. Dancy, thanks in part to a dangerous pair of heels. But the play is really Arianda's to run with, and sprint away she does. She's dangerous, charming, lovable, mysterious, seductive, the girl-next-door, confusing, and crystal clear all at once. I'm still not quite certain which of Vanda's stories were meant to be true or not.

As a fan of creative structure, interesting characters, and performances that truly come to life, I loved every minute spent watching the erotic antics play out between Vanda and Thomas. Vanda's true motives are never quite revealed - or should I say confirmed - but Ives' characters are so intensely dynamic that I left wishing I could meet these people in real life, not stuck on how their stories came to intersect.


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