The deafening thunderclap that opens David Ives’s Venus in Fur, in its new Broadway incarnation at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, signals you immediately that something cosmic is meant to be going on. Most of what happens, though, in the 100 minutes of Ives’s kinky comedy-drama, is about as cosmic as a pratfall. Skittish in tone, Ives’s work often veers into skitlike foolery of the kind with which people have kidded the theater for decades, in every medium including the theater itself.
Not that the foolery’s necessarily wrongheaded in itself. Ives’s story tells of Thomas (Hugh Dancy), a playwright-director who’s casting his new stage adaptation of that Victorian classic of s&m torments, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1869 novel, Venus in Fur, about an aristocrat hungry for degradation and a mysterious woman eager, or at any rate, willing, to do the degrading. (The novelist’s name gave the world the word masochism.) Just as Thomas, disheartened by the thunderstorm outside and the stream of mediocre auditioners he’s been seeing, is about to give up the search for a leading lady, Vanda (Nina Arianda) turns up, as if on cue. While her coarse brashness and apparent ignorance repel Thomas, she rapidly surprises him by demonstrating her fitness for the role—as well as her intriguing ability to lure him into playing the would-be degradee opposite her.
Having now been displayed in both the off-Broadway production of Ives’s work and the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday, Arianda’s enchanting ability to shift, in a microsecond, from squawk-box crass comedy to tremulous gentility and onward to dominatrix ferocity will, at this point, surprise nobody, though it remains a continuous delight. Nor will there be any surprise in the technical flexibility and range of dramatic colors that lie concealed under Dancy’s soft-spoken, diffident charm. The two make a remarkable team. (Somebody should cast them in Private Lives.)
Less remarkable, regrettably, is Venus in Fur’s basic material, though Ives gives it every imaginable break. He tosses in all kinds of intellectual disruptions, challenging, defending, disassembling, and analyzing Sacher-Masoch’s narrative till you practically start to wonder why you can’t see its structural elements littering the audition-room floor. He tries to extend the novel’s metaphoric reach by tracking its view of power relations through actor-director and actor-playwright transactions, even dipping into the links between playwrights’ personal lives and the works they create.
Amusing and entertaining as Ives’s cunning interruptions can be, they don’t help the dramatic build of a work that tends to lose steam very quickly, despite director Walter Bobbie’s firm, and occasionally over-assertive, efforts to drive it along at a steady clip. Arianda’s instantaneous shifts from mystical Victorian matrix to 21st-century material gal, like the offstage thunderclaps, become an effect too often repeated. The developments, both in Sacher-Masoch’s plot and in the contemporary story with which Ives frames it, never alter the basic setup, which comes from a basic sexual fantasy: The masochist says, “Hit me,” and the sadist says, “No.” Or “yes,” or maybe “not just yet, darling.” But only those who get a special thrill from the fantasy will find sustained excitement in seeing it enacted, even with variations and interruptions, over and over again.