by David Ives
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Starring Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley
Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Spencer
(Logged: 2/3/2010)

It’s the end of an audition day for an off-off-Broadway play—but one of some significant expectation, as its playwright, Thomas (Wes Bentley) has had a modest level of previous success that suggests promise and elicits attention. Certainly, at least, when the actress Wanda (Nina Arianda) arrives late due to a subway slowdown and bedraggled due to the rain, her disappointment at being turned away is not merely palpable, it’s profound enough to coerce Thomas into giving her a “courtesy read.” The play in question is his new, two-actor adaptation of Venus in Furs, an 1870 novella by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, in which a man is so infatuated by a woman that he begs to be treated as her slave; and the woman, though at first repelled, begins to appreciate the power this gives her, socially and sexually. The novel was so scandalous in its time, that the term masochism, to describe the willful desire to be punished (especially in a sexual context) was derived from the author’s name. The woman’s role requires an actress able to deliver power, intelligence, subtlety, sensuality and mercurial mood-shifts—not to mention simple animal charisma—and the scatterbrain who has entered the rehearsal studio seems hardly the type.

                        Until she begins to read.

                        And awakens in Thomas himself a growing fascination, more so as he coaxes him not only to read with her, but to read with conviction. She clearly knows the play better than she ever let on…how did she get an entire script, not merely the audition sides?…why does she present herself as a jabbering ditz when in the middle of reading her lines aloud, she can suddenly drop an analytical aside so perceptive as to throw into relief things that Thomas himself hadn’t realized? But the question of who she may be is never one he can spend much time contemplating because somehow this audition has become a reading of the entire play, the sparring of the actress and author counterpointed with that of the dominatrix and her victim…

                        That’s pretty much the deal with Venus in Fur (the title of the play—the real play, the one we’re watching—takes away the plural), the neat, 90 minute two-hander by David Ives that has just been extended at Classic Stage Company (CSC). For the record, I cottoned to the play’s conclusion somewhere in the middle (my penchant for spotting a John Collier or Charles Beaumont-type irony coming, I guess), but neither my very clever companion of the evening nor anyone else I know has, nor have I hinted at the telling clue in this review. What most important is that the realization spoiled nothing for me. In Venus in Fur, the ride is as riveting as the answer, and as directed by Walter Bobbie, it’s a funny, sad, sensuous bullet-train of a journey.

                        If there’s any caveat I have about the evening, it’s that Nina Arianda, the fresh, young actress right out of NYU, is very likely a new and even significant star—evincing a comic sensibility, worldliness and versatility well beyond her years—and her partner, Wes Bentley, though far better than adequate, is nonetheless not an equal match. To some degree, this has to do with the role itself; Miss Arianda simply has the better part. To read screenwriter William Goldman recounting the filming of Stephen King’s Misery, that’s why the creative team, including director Rob Reiner, had such a hellish time casting the victim-writer: because whoever played the crazy woman who kidnaps him would have the virtuoso role and walk away with the movie, as indeed Kathy Bates did; but still, she had James Caan as a foil. And since casting a “name” was clearly not a requirement of Venus in Fur, it seems odd that Mr. Bentley emerged the frontrunner. Which makes the seesaw just a little unevenly balanced.

                        But that’s actually not much of an objection, because there comes a point early on where it ceases to be a distraction, because there are too many other fascinating things to hold your attention. Indeed, making you submit…

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