By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Venus in Fur (no s) is a dazzling play by the endlessly surprising playwright David Ives about a playwright (Hugh Dancy) and an actress (Nina Arianda) who is auditioning for the lead in his new sado-masochistic play.
Venus in Furs is the title of a 19th-century novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch (whose name gave us the M part of the label S&M), about a man exploring his psychosexual need to be tortured and enslaved by a woman; this is the novel the playwright, Thomas, has adapted for the stage.
Venus in Fur (also known as Venus with Mirror) is the 16th century painting by Titian showing the luscious and semi-recumbent Venus surrounded by cupids holding mirrors up for her self-admiration.
Venus in Furs is a song by Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground whose lyrics begin with “Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather/Whiplash girlchild in the dark.”
All of the above and more (including what may be the oldest play about S&M, The Bacchae) keep audiences laughing and gasping through Manhattan Theatre Club’s spectacular production of Ives’ play. A raved-about transfer from Classic Stage Company to Broadway, the sensational Nina Arianda earns her star-is-born reviews. And local audiences who know Ives’ New Jerusalem and who were surprised by its serious weight after, say, All in the Timing, his collection of comedies, will be surprised again by this erotic, heady play directed with sly ingenuity by Walter Bobbie.
The show opens with hilariously theatrical lighting effects: lightning slashes and thunder crashes across the stage as the curtain flies up to reveal the playwright on the phone complaining about contemporary actresses: their lack of femininity, their lack of education, their vulgarity. In walks Vanda (her name is Wanda in Sacher-Masoch’s novel, but you know how Ws are pronounced in German). She is initially as stupid and as vulgar as they come, but, uncannily, having just glanced at the script on the subway, she seems to have it memorized. Arianda can switch up and back from Vanda’s New York accent to Vanda’s European accent with effortless speed and skill. With similar speed she uses the fuse box to switch the lighting from harsh contemporary fluorescent to warm old-fashioned incandescent.
They proceed to read through the script as Thomas becomes more and more the character he has disavowed. Boots and frockcoats emerge from her enormous bag, and the ratty old divan becomes an odalisque’s chaise, as well as a casting couch, and a psychiatric couch. Similarly, a cup of coffee crosses time and reality zones, while words themselves morph meanings, and genders bend while mirrors reflect. And all of this while Ives takes on the whole history of patriarchy in western civilization.
Just as the play is about sexual domination and the complexity of desire, it is also about making theater: Watch how a costume dominates the person wearing it. Watch the domination of playwright over characters, the domination of director over actors, and the characters over actors--and their complicated submissions. And all this as we submit to the illusion before us.
To reveal more of the plot would be cruel. (Kneel, Reader! Beg, Reader!).
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York Tickets $57-121. Information: 212-239-6200 or www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com