November 19, 2011

A Love Affair with "Venus in Fur"

My husband K is in love with the actress Nina Arianda.  Which is OK with me because—like every other true theater lover in New York right now—I, too, am in love with Arianda, the star of Venus in Fur, which is playing a limited run at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Dec. 18.

Arianda, who is only 27 and got her masters from NYU just two years ago, first created a sensation when she originated the role of Vanda, a young actress who undertakes an unusual audition in the Classic Stage Company production of Venus in Fur last year. The critics went mad for her and nearly exhausted the synonyms for great. 

Eager to see what all the fuss was about, I managed to get into one of the final performances of that run. I didn’t write about it but I was gobsmacked by Arianda too, and was even more so when she starred in last spring’s too-short-lived revival of Born Yesterday.

Arianda is the whole package—a dramatic actress who can pack a scene’s worth of emotions into a single-word, a physical comedienne who knows how to get the most out of her long, loose limbs and rubbery kewpie doll face (although she does need to learn how to pause until the laughter dies down) and a sexy woman who can turn up the heat with a glance (click here to read John Lahr’s profile of her in The New Yorker).

I have to be honest.  I’m not as crazy about the play that David Ives has adapted from the kinky 19th century novella “Venus im Pelz” or “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose surname and sexual predilections have been immortalized in the word masochism.

Ives’ two-hander, which has added an additional 15 minutes to the 90 minute running time at CSC, dances back and forth between the modern day rehearsal room where Vanda arrives late to audition for Thomas, the writer-director of a play based on Sacher-Masoch’s tale of a dominatrix and slave relationship, and scenes from Thomas’ play-within-a-play. 

It’s all too meta and smugly clever for me and not half as much fun as Ives’ School for Lies which played at CSC in May (click here to read my review of it). But Walter Bobbie’s sharp direction makes it easy to follow the transitions in Venus in Fur, except when they’re supposed to be fuzzy. He gets excellent support from Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and the sound design by ACME Sound Partners.

But this is an actors’ showcase. I already knew what Arianda was capable of doing. And so I looked forward to seeing how the British actor Hugh Dancy would play off her as Thomas.

Wes Bentley, the young actor who almost stole the 1999 movie “American Beauty” away from Kevin Spacey, made his New York stage debut in the role downtown. Arianda’s high-voltage performance seemed to blow him off the stage and I thought a more experienced stage actor might stand his ground better.

There’s no question that Dancy has the acting chops (click here to read an interview he did with Out Magazine) and he’s great in the early scenes but, to my surprise, I ended up preferring Bentley’s more vulnerable performance, which provided a story arc for the character that Dancy doesn’t quite deliver for me.

In the end, though, it’s still Arianda’s show. And if you love theater or just love to be able to brag about being in the know, you should see it because she’s the real deal.

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