Report From New York: Venus In Fur Is Intriguing, Thoughtful And Titillating But Puzzling

Or Coming To A Theater Near You
(Or Not)

By Bill Hirschman

Welcome to our semi-annual scouting trip for shows likely to appear in South Florida in a local production or national tour — or shows you should make a point of seeing/avoiding on your next trip. Among them:  Leap of Faith (starring Miami’s Raul Esparza, just closed), Other Desert Cities (announced for Actors Playhouse next season), Peter and the Starcatcher (based on books by the Herald’s Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), Once, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Columnist, End of the Rainbow, Venus in Fur and a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (recently-extended with an African-American cast). See links at the bottom of each story for previous reviews in the series.

Today’s Review: Venus in Fur

Every once in a while you see a show that nearly everyone has gone cashew nut crazy over. Critics write raves the author’s mother would be embarrassed to pen. Audiences go into near apoplexy with praise. And you just don’t get it.

Such is the case with the enviable success for David Ives’ Venus In Fur, whose Broadway transfer is going to give Other Desert Cities its most serious competition for the Tony Award next month.

No question, this is an intelligent, thought-provoking comedy-drama featuring a strong performance by hunky Hugh Dancy and one breakout tell-your-grandkids-about-it tour-de-force by Nina Arianda, all guided by Walter Bobbie’s surefooted direction.

But the play itself just didn’t float my boat to use a term taken from sophisticated literary analysis. You’ll get your chance to judge for yourself: Joe Adler has been jockeying for the rights to put it on at GableStage and no doubt others are in the running. The slightly misleading expectation that the play will be suffused with sado-masochism gives the work an undeniable frisson akin to the buzz over Fifty Shades of Grey.

The plot has a lovably quirky actress Vanda rush into an audition that has long ago ended. Only the director/playwright Thomas is there, closing up for the night before taking his wife to dinner.

Surprisingly, the foul-mouthed actress persuades Thomas to read a scene with her from his adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel about sex as a tool for domination between the genders, focusing on a man who persuades a woman to treat him as a slave.

Even more surprisingly, her ditsy 21st Century persona evaporates into that of the play’s self-assured heroine. As the evening progresses, the two read deeper and deeper into the script, and you sense something else is going on beyond the deepening role-playing psycho-drama. For one thing, the actress seems to know the script inside out even though she says she just skimmed it on the subway. She also knows a lot more about the director/playwright than she ought to. And, oh yes, she showed up to the audition with her own dominatrix outfit.

There is, indeed, a significant secret revealed in the final moments—although it is so out of left field that I wasn’t sure I had perceived it correctly until after I left the theater. Don’t bother trying to guess it in advance; it makes sense but it’s out of keeping with the rest of the evening.

For this critic, Ives’ script is interesting in its examination of traditional and non-traditional gender roles, its exploration of the exploitive sexism in sado-masochism and the damage it does to both parties. Most people, I think, were dazzled by the changing roles – at one point the actress plays the man and the director plays the woman.  It becomes a kaleidoscope of power in which we’re not sure who is on top literally and figuratively.

Ives, whose work stretches from the Mark Twain comedy Is He Dead? to the book for Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, does provide some meaty acting roles and the script is threaded with copious comic moments.

But it all seemed more of a theatrical stunt mixed with some intriguing insights, rather than a coherent cohesive play.

That said, Arianda is as amazing as advertised when the show opened off-Broadway a season ago and now in its Broadway incarnation. She blazes into the first scene with an energy and vitality that could power a small Florida city for a month. Then, she effortlessly morphs into the far more complicated character in the script.

Again, a lot of intelligent people with taste believe this is a stunning work not to be missed. You can tell me next season when someone down here is bound to do it.

Previous reviews in the series:
Leap of Faith, click here.
Once, click here
End of the Rainbow, click here
A Streetcar Named Desire, click here.
Other Desert Cities, Click here
Nice Work If You Can Get It, click here

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One Response to Report From New York: Venus In Fur Is Intriguing, Thoughtful And Titillating But Puzzling

  1. Pingback: Report From New York: Peter And The Starcatcher Is Profligately Imaginative Tale | Florida Theater On Stage

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