Review of the Saturday, May 5 matinee performance at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City. A new play by David Ives. Starring Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy. Directed by Walter Bobbie. 1 hour, 45 minutes, with no intermission. Adult language and sexual situations. Closes June 17.
Not since A Chorus Line has Broadway seen a hotter audition than Venus in Fur, a new comedy-drama by David Ives. What starts out as a complicated mix of physical and situation comedy morphs into a white hot drama about sexual fantasy and power, love and control, vanilla and kinky sex. The line between the reality of the audition and the intensity of the play being auditioned is in constant flux, until, in its last, frenzied moments that line is obliterated. The result is an ambiguous, thought-provoking ending which should leave all of your senses tingling and your theatrical needs satisfied. Hmm, well, maybe not satisfied... wanting more. Either way, you leave the show fully charged and ready for anything.
Venus in Fur starts and ends with a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder, an apt metaphor for both the play and its female co-star. At the opening, a director/playwright is at his wits end having seen dozens of actresses for a sexually complicated role that, so far, has yielded him dozens of faux hookers, not at all what he is looking for. Nothing has prepared him for the tempest of a woman who is about to enter his life. Enter the actress, herself a swirling storm of untamed energy and ferocity, whose obvious sexuality fairly drips off of her like the rain drips off of her umbrella. Another flash of lightning and BOOM their lives become inextricably intertwined. She convinces him to see her - she knows his script better than he does, and can adapt any number of mannerisms to suit exactly what he wants... needs... at any given time. He gives in and the audition begins. Slowly but surely, the script becomes secondary - eventually both scripts are literally thrown to the side - and the battle for control begins. What exactly they are trying to control is one of Venus in Fur's central questions. Is it control of the audition? Artistic control of the work? Or is it more the control of a much deeper sexual fantasy? A cat and mouse game that Agatha Christie wishes she wrote, the two go back and forth dominating and submitting to each other. Different scenarios - some quite violent - are played out, culminating in the ultimate fantasy come true - Venus in fur arrives with a clap of thunder and a blinding flash of lightning, and the play is over. But to take it simply as a sexual game presented live on stage is to short change this intense play. Sex as control, the societal demoralizing of women into submissive roles, and the desire of some men to be controlled despite even the most liberal of societies demanding he be in control, are all a part of the point of the show. At its heart, this vividly theatrical work (I'm not sure this would work as a film) is about liberation of the sexes. That it uses sexuality to make its point makes the play all the more tantalizing, and it certainly holds your attention for its entire 105 intermissionless minutes.
That opening flash of lightning and clap of thunder signals a magician-like reveal of John Lee Beatty's rehearsal room box set. An enormous blue drape covers the box and is lifted as the lightning flashes. The box - literally a box with a side open so we can see inside - appears to be surrounded by the black stage of the Lyceum. Is this a real place? Is it a fantasy space created for the sexual games about to ensue? Is it a magical space created just for the arrival of Venus in fur? Inside the box, the room is sterile, a table strewn with a day's work stage left, a draped mirror wall stage right, an upstage wall holds the rest of the furnishings - spare chairs and another table with refreshments. The stage is dominated by a covered divan and a large support beam/pole. As the play progresses and the lights (designed by Peter Kaczorowski) vacillate between utilitarian florescent and theatrical lighting, the furnishings - every single piece - take on both theatrical and sexual meaning. The only suggestion of an "outside the box" is a shadow of large windows projected on the wall when there is darkness, as if we are the moon, beaming in through the panes, observing the action. Being that this is very heightened theatricality - it is an audition, after all - the many props, the costume pieces (designed by Anita Yavich) and the sound design by Acme Sound Partners take on extra import in this play. Without such excellent attention to each of these design elements, the subtext of the entire production would be missing. To look at it, it all seems rather plain, allowing us to focus on the two actors, but upon reflection, that "magic box" and its contents are a third character.
Equally vital to the production and just as blissfully unobtrusive is the direction of Walter Bobbie, who keeps this seething mass of emotion moving quickly - your mind has questions, but your attention to the action keeps you from asking. Kudos, also, to Thomas Schall, for well-staged and well-executed fight choreography. The words and certainly some of the action are very sexual, but it is enticing rather than lurid, a fantasy rather than salacious pornography, erotic without being smutty. And much of that credit must go to Mr. Bobbie, who has guided his actors carefully through David Ives' complex, ever shifting script. A potential nightmare of details, the production must be close to what Mr. Ives has envisioned, as the creative team has all bases covered, allowing its two stars to bring the words to life, and challenging, but never confusing, the audience.
As the playwright/director, Hugh Dancy is giving a star-making performance. He is mesmerizing from the beginning to the end, with comic timing that is perfection and dramatic chops that most actors only aspire to. Playing an American, his British accent is completely absent until, humorously, he is reading the role of the sexually needy man in search of the pleasures of Venus in his script. The play itself calls for the actor to have an extremely wide range of emotions, from the cocky arrogance of a Broadway director to the swagger of nobility, to lovesick weakness and, well, the desperation of unsated horniness. Mr. Dancy's performance is a provocative mix of machismo and emasculation, and the physicality of the role works him into a visible sweat. He is also so erotic at times it is as if we are watching a man going through metaphoric masturbation, the climax of which has him bound to the pole, pleading for release. That none of that comes across as unseemly is to his credit, as a lesser actor would likely overplay the sexuality and underplay the emotional motivation. To lose that would also mean losing the ambiguity of what we are watching - is all of this just a role playing sadomasochistic fantasy of this guy? It would also mean losing the single biggest asset of this production - the sizzling chemistry between him and his co-star.
I mentioned earlier that that flash of lightning was a metaphor for the female co-star. Indeed, Nina Arianda arrives on a bolt of lightning, and her performance is electric. I know I am late to the Arianda love party, but I have to say I am now completely smitten with this magnetic actress, who joins a small pantheon of actresses (Lansbury, LuPone, Benanti and Buckley) that I would watch in anything and everything she does from this day forward. She as that indefinable "it" quality that all actors strive for, but so few have. There is a naturalness to her every move, word and pause. She uses the words "fuck" and "cunt" as if they were poetic, and drapes her long legs provocatively around a number of things miraculously suggesting both a dominatrix and a lady at the same time. And whether she is is in a leather mini skirt and dog collar or flowing white gauzy dressing gown, you get the same duplicity wordlessly. But her reading of this complex, wordy script and equally complex woman is perfection. She is completely believable as the scatterbrained actress looking for work who isn't really scatterbrained but rather coyly "together," just as she is believable as a sexually needy aristocratic woman, and, too, as 21st century feminist. I could go on, but I'll stop here and simply say Ms. Arianda is the rare actress who not only lives up to the critical hype, she is beyond it. (I would hate to be a Tony voter this year.)
As you might expect in such an erotic tango as this play is, Ms. Arianda is also called upon to show as wide a range of emotion as Mr. Dancy. They match each other move for move, emotion for emotion, not unlike a very tense chess match. But their smoldering, achingly real chemistry makes it so you root first for one than the other. It is the rare piece that has you finding both characters to be both protagonist and antagonist. Of course, in a play that deals with the give and take of sexual domination and submission, it wouldn't really work without that element, would it?
Having seen this play now after the Tony Award nominations announcement, I can see why this amazing play was remembered in the Best Play and Best Actress categories. But I can also see why there was such an outcry about the omission of Venus in Fur in the Best Direction and Best Actor categories. As wonderful as Mr. Ives play is, and as dazzling and memorable Ms. Arianda's performance, I can't imagine this production without the contributions of Mr. Bobbie and Mr. Dancy. The entire enterprise is one of the best evenings of the season. It is also one of the best plays I've seen in years of theatre-going. The show closes on June 17th; don't miss this one before it leaves forever.
(Production photos by Joan Marcus)