Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 8, 2011
Venus in Fur by David Ives. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Anita Yavich. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Fight direction by Thomas Schall. Cast: Nina Arianda, Hugh Dancy.
The play is David Ives's Venus in Fur, which just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman, and the shooting star in question is Nina Arianda. Though she made her Broadway bow this past season as a delightful Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, her heretofore legendary signature turn came a year earlier, when she opened in this play at Classic Stage Company. Fresh out of NYU, she made an Olympic-level splash that led to the sort of acclaim, awards, and new jobs (including a major role in Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris) that most struggling actors don't dare fantasize about.
Happily, a year and a half away from Venus in Fur has not dulled the impact she makes with it. As Vanda, a deceptive ditz of an actress auditioning for an avant-garde stage adaptation of the scandalous 1870 Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel that shares the play's title, Arianda embodies every kind of character — and every kind of woman — with an effortless facility more in tune with a bygone era of craftsmanship.
When Vanda first appears at the door of the antiquated studio (the charmingly beat-up design of John Lee Beatty), she's so flustered that she's on the verge of losing the battle to close her umbrella. When she speaks, she projects the persona of a barely up-to-date Billie Dawn: not quite an airhead, but with a squeaky voice and untethered thinking that suggest she's not entirely there. Yet she's oddly persuasive, even fiery, when told the audition session has ended. Never breaking her façade, she makes it clear she needs to be there, and needs to read for the lead part of Vanda (hmm, that's a coincidence), in the play about a passionate relationship between a bored aristocrat and the woman he gives himself into slavery to for a year.
But a strange thing happens as the actress Vanda assumes the character of Vanda: Her voice drops an octave, her fluttery nature vanishes, and she instantly becomes the object of untouchable desire the play demands. As the "reading" develops and we discover it's much more than a typical theatrical getting-to-know-you event, the two Vandas coax and cudgel in objecting to their treatment both within the realm of the play and without, and follow a single thread of personality through to the (ahem) climax that demonstrates how much power submissive people can wield.
What makes Arianda so gloriously, irreplaceably special is the depth she brings to both Vandas. In what each says and doesn't, and sometimes in when each appears and departs, these are intricate women that won't be pigeonholed by any man or any society, and aren't afraid to fight against any real or perceived slight. The way Arianda flips her voice between kewpie-doll cutesiness and dominatrix-drenched sultriness is the stuff of pure magic, but neither's commitment to her cause her wavers. Most important, both are so believable and inextricable that you can never be certain who is playing whom.
Where the MTC production excels in comparison to the original is in the other character that lets Ives examine the same thing from a different vantage point. Thomas, the adapter-director of the novel and the Vandas' stage-life and real-life foil, was played Off-Broadway by Wes Bentley, who was game but miscast as a man whose issues about women and intimacy inform more of his work than he would like to admit.
Hugh Dancy, previously seen on Broadway in the superb 2007 revival of Journey's End, suffers from no such problem. His Thomas is alive, energetic, and dynamically defensive of his writing, and that makes it easier for Dancy to approach Vanda as her eye-level equal and not a crouched-over victim. Dancy's acting here is rarely as subtle as Arianda's, but it's good that it's not; he's in total command of Thomas's gut, and wrests an intense portrayal from that anguished core. Dancy's verve helps focus Venus in Fur into a taut power play (something it never seemed the first time around), and gives it the tools it needs to grab and grip you more viscerally than most erotic stage outings today usually manage.
Director Walter Bobbie has honed his production to a fine edge, and lets it waste nothing along its course. The only iffy element is the play itself. If Ives is aiming for densely psychological battle-of-the-sexes commentary, he doesn't get it. So much time is devoted to the technical merits and demerits of the play-within-the-play that there's not much time for deepening (or, well, establishing) a sufficiently weighty deconstruction of gender roles in an S&M pair-off. The evening is fun, no question, but in the way a marshmallow is a fun dessert: It offers pleasure when you scarf it down, but no complexity to speak of.
Arianda, however, provides no end of it. With every word, every glance, every cock of her hip she says something new about the way men view women, about the way writers and directors view actors, and about the way human beings view each other. What you glean from her every second onstage is that you should never take anyone for granted because you have no way of knowing what he or she is truly capable of — you can always be surprised.
This is what the Vandas are all about, to be sure, but Arianda crows it loudest of all as she stakes her claim to pride of place among the upcoming generation of stage stars. If there's any justice in the world, Arianda and the infinite characters she's apparently capable of playing will be crowing that on Broadway for years, if not decades, to come.