Broadway’s New Goddess ‘Venus in Fur’
By Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
Nina Arianda’s New York stage debut was mind blowing. This, I mused, must have been what it was like to see Barbra Streisand when she was just starting out. Since her New York debut Off Broadway in “Venus in Fur,” Arianda’s career has taken off. A Tony nod for her reprisal of the Judy Holliday role in “Born Yesterday,” and a stand out part in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”
Back on Broadway, Arianda reprises her role as Vanda in “Venus in Fur” this time opposite Hugh Dancy as Thomas, the playwright and director who is casting his new play. Having auditioned thirty-five actresses, half of whom “are dressed like hookers,” he claims “and half like dykes,” Thomas is at the end of his rope. But when Vanda gushes into the space, an audition turns into a play of conflicting passions. Holding Thomas at gun point, threatening him with the blade of her knife, she becomes the dominatrix in a racy game of S&M. In spite of it, Dancy is no passive victim. The sexuality that burns within him displays the strength of a gladiator.
With the tension between the two held in tow, Arianda’s presence is less dramatic than it was when she played the role Off Broadway where Wes Bentley played Thomas as a weak character. The result was an erotic boxing match in which Arianda prevailed by giving the greatest show on earth. Seated around the three quarters stage, the audience became the voyeur. In that tiny space the actors loomed larger than life whereas on Broadway the actors are mere specs by comparison. Unfortunately, the need to act bigger diffuses the rawness and intensity of the Off Broadway production.
More importantly, now Arianda portrays Vanda as a comic character with shades of the brassy albeit sensitive showgirl from “Born Yesterday,” (a role she had not yet played when she debuted as Vanda Off Broadway). Equally strong, Dancy’s delivery is articulate, and his character dynamic. But the two simply lack chemistry. As directed here by Walter Bobbie, the show is less erotic boxing match and more pas de deux in which sex and conquest, hatred and dominance are playfully acted out.
Thomas’s play, the play within the play, is based on the 19th century erotic classic by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in which a nobleman, Kushemski, meets a young woman, Duanyev, at a resort and begs her to act out the cane lashing he experienced at the hands of a “voluptuous, imperious” aunt. Vanda, in turn, transforms into an Aphrodite-like character, “Venus in Fur.” Playwright David Ives mines these multi-layered realities with extraordinary finesse, using dialogue that is as profane as it is poetic.
John Lee Beatty’s set creates the raw bones of a cold, vacant rehearsal studio with florescent lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. This is far from the peep show reality of the Off Broadway production. But the edge here is comedy with the dark underpinnings left more to our imagination.
“Venus in Fur” is one of several shows including “Chinglish,” and "Other Desert Cities” that have transferred to Broadway this season from smaller venues. It’s sad to see these plays which offer robust entertainment far from the madding crowd loose their cache when they’re made to stand up to Broadway style values.
“Venus in Fur” is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, through December 18th. Performance schedules vary, Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200, visiting www.Telecharge.com, or by going to the box office.
Photo: Joan Marcus