February 22, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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VENUS IN FUR exists, at this point in its Broadway life, as two overlapping but not identical entities:  it’s a deft new play by David Ives, but also, and more prominently, it’s become the Star-Is-Born vehicle for its lead actress, Nina Arianda, who’s currently giving about as dazzling a performance as you’re likely to see on a Broadway stage.  

No one had ever heard of Arianda before she starred in the initial 2010 Off-Broadway production of Venus, and fittingly, in the play she’s introduced as an unknown aspiring actress.  Her name is Vanda, and at the end of a long day, hopelessly late, she blows into an audition hall like a scatterbrained force of nature, desperate to try out for the lead in the play Venus In Fur–a character coincidentally also named Vanda.  The only one still in the audition room is writer/directorThomas (Hugh Dancy), who’s packing up to leave, but Vanda talks herself, in her seemingly bubble-headed, flaky-funny way, into being allowed to read.  Once she begins, everything changes.
Thomas’ play is based on the real late 19th century novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.  His name became the root of the term “masochism,” and that pretty much tells you the subject matter of the work.  It concerns a man named Severin and his obsession with Vanda, before whom he finds sexual satisfaction in abasement and humiliation.  Thomas claims to have written the adaptation out of purely academic fascination, with no personal feelings attached, but when Vanda convinces him to take the role of Severin opposite her, it’s no surprise that before long, his real emotions begin to show.
The role of Vanda (the actress) is spectacularly mercurial, presented initially as a sort of savant who doesn’t have a thought in her mind when she’s being herself, but instantly takes on–embodies–all the necessary characteristics (accent, bearing) as well as the complexities and nuances of Vanda (the character) as soon as she’s reading the role.  And there are increasing hints that she may not just be a gifted actress…
Venus In Fur (the play) is ultimately more of a game (and a satire on actor/director politics) than a serious commentary on male/female relationships, as Vanda the actress and Vanda the character constantly shift and begin to merge, and the balance of power between her and Thomas/Severin inevitably comes to resemble the story they’re enacting.  But what a game!  The role of Vanda is a gift to a performer in the way that split-personality roles like Sybil and The 3 Faces of Eve have been gifts to actresses in the past:  Arianda gets to become less and more intelligent, submissive and powerful, American and European, seductive and revolted, 21st Century and 19th, all with split-second hairpin turns of body language and voice.  It’s the very definition of a tour de force, and she pulls it off gloriously.
Dancy’s work is less overwhelming than Arianda’s, but shouldn’t be underestimated.  He also has to transition between eras, characters-within-characters, and contrasting positions of power, and does so with seeming ease  Ultimately, though, his character’s throughline is more clearly preordained, and Thomas is destined to be Vanda’s foil.  
Walter Bobbie’s direction brings a welcome clarity to what could have been a mess of confusion:  even when we don’t know exactly what’s going on, or who a character ‘is,” we always feel comfortable that we know as much as the play wants us to at that given moment, and where we are in Ives’ process.  John Lee Beatty’s set design and Peter Kaczorowki’s lighting design are also notable for squeezing a remarkable variety of changes out of a single fixed set.
Venus In Fur is constantly enjoyable, even if not particularly profound, a satisfying, sexy, funny exercise in theatrical gamesmanship (gameswomanship?).  It’s destined to remembered, though, mostly for unleashing Nina Arianda and her powerhouse set of skills onto an audience that finds itself more than willing to yield.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."