When Nina Arianda entered the stage last year in the Off-Broadway production of David Ives‘s Venus in Fur, playing Vanda, a frazzled yet manipulative actress who’s late for an audition, it was almost like she was actually auditioning for all of us.
This was our first glimpse of the brand-new NYU grad, and as she sputtered, charmed, and coerced in her attempt to land her role within a role, she also scored with the audience, proving to be a gifted actress who has a wickedly winning way with the cadence of an aside.
Arianda ended up landing the lead in Born Yesterday (Tony nomination) as well as parts in movies like Midnight in Paris and Higher Ground before coming back to this spicy actors’ showcase about the s&m power struggles that make love exciting.
And she’s still got it.
In the play, writer/director Thomas (a charmingly agitated Hugh Dancy, replacing Wes Bentley) is casting for his drama based on an 1870 novel about an aristocrat and the woman he’s tumultuously “handcuffed to the heart” with. (“Basically, it’s s&m porn,” relates Vanda, more realistically.)
As they read through chunks of Thomas’s adaptation, Vanda resents the way the aristocrat longs to be abused, but the woman is blamed for the result. “Misogynist!” shrieks Vanda, eyes flaring.
That becomes a starting ground for a lot of playacting, recriminations, and role-switching, with Dancy even finding himself playing the lady at one point but not being quite so in charge.
I should add that Vanda — like the female visitor in another of this year’s straight plays — might not be all she seems, but whoever she is, her mission is to push for some harsh enlightenment in a way that Dancy’s character might even get off on.
Arianda is even more assured than last year; the moment when she claims to have been a prostitute is one of the most hilariously pulled-off stage bits I’ve ever seen.
Her vehicle is not all smoothly entertaining — the play within a play is less riveting than the actor-versus-playwright dynamic, and without an intermission it’s a long sit — but for a pristinely acted literary sex comedy, it’s hard to beat Venus in Fur, except with a stick.