Venus in Furs, the 1870 erotic novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, concerns a nobleman with a passion for pelt-draped, whip-wielding women. Kink aside, it’s a lackluster work, bereft of plot and freighted with crude philosophy. Even the naughty bits are turgid (not in the fun way): “I felt a certain wild, supersensual stimulation under Apollo’s whip,” our hero moans. Nothing like a classical reference to get you hot and bothered.
One wonders why a bothered David Ives adapted the book into a present-day meditation on sex and power, now playing at Classic Stage Company. (One also wonders what finicky impulse led him to ditch that ultimate “s,” titling his play Venus in Fur.) Ives is not a wild supersensualist. His plays, particularly his wonderful one-acts, are lively, intellectual exercises. His Venus in Fur invites both carnal and cerebral excitement, but structural uncertainty and Walter Bobbie’s direction render it ultimately unsatisfying.
Ives sets his play not in a Carpathian spa but in a Midtown rehearsal room. As Thomas (Wes Bentley), a playwright casting his adaptation of Venus in Furs, prepares to lock up, aspiring actress Vanda (Nina Arianda) arrives and demands an audition. Vanda is built like a Barbie doll, with brains to match. “A long-ass dress,” she effuses, remarking on a costume choice, “isn’t that real 1870-whatever?” Yet, as she and Thomas read through the script, Vanda reveals talents not listed on her résumé.
Ives apparently intends the play as a corrective for the novel’s misogyny; the book describes woman as man’s enemy. “It’s pretty sexist,” Vanda says. The play reverses the power dynamic, offering the vivacious Arianda a better role than Bentley’s. Yet it also requires her to appear nearly naked while Bentley remains clothed. That “long-ass dress”? It’s see-through. Confusingly, the production objectifies Arianda’s body even as the play empowers her character. Nor does Ives seem altogether comfortable with erotic content. Sex games eventually cede to a series of clever, if implausible, reveals and reversals. Though the play’s first half-hour promises high excitement, the climax is decidedly anti-. What a tease.