Broadway review: 'Venus in Fur' whips audience into quandary

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At the end of "Venus in Fur" (no worries, this is not a spoiler) at the Saturday (Nov. 5 matinee) the assistant director invited the audience to stay for a talk.

People immediately started asking what the play was about.

Usually after watching a play, especially one as brilliantly acted and directed as this, the audience knows. But this is intended to be ambiguous; its aim is to spark conversation.

This psychosexual play raises so many questions. Nina Arianda plays Vanda, an actress, desperate for an acting job. She arrives at an audition, as the playwright is packing up for the day.

Playwright Thomas ( Hugh Dancy, "The Big C") is on his cell to his fiancee, complaining about the dearth of polished, literate, articulate actresses. He has adapted a play of a novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. And yes, this is the author whose name spawned part of the term sadomasochism, the other coming from the Marquis de Sade.

"Venus in Fur" is about this strange audition to cast Thomas' play about the book. In it, the author talks about a fondness for fur ever since an aunt whipped him with a birch switch while servants, whom he had been wicked to, held him down, bare-bottomed, on a fur throw when he was a child.

The experience marked him for life.

Vanda blows into the audition, which is in a former sweatshop and has all of the charm of a former sweatshop. She enters in frenzy, and keeps up a frenetic pace, neatly dipping between sex goddess, possibly the real Venus, and crazy actress, a brassy borough broad who can act.

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In Vanda's natural voice -- though with Vanda we are never sure what is real, what is put on, or ultimately, who she is -- she sounds a lot like Cyndi Lauper. She's got a real mouth on her. When she's reading for the part, however, she sounds like the great British actress Joan Plowright, all plummy vowels and proper enunciation.

Arianda became a Broadway darling for her Tony-nominated Broadway debut earlier this year in "Born Yesterday." She's been on "The Good Wife" and is in "Tower Heist" and there's a reason she's in such demand. Arianda is terrific, and one of those actors who thoroughly throws herself into a role. 

In "Born Yesterday" and this she spends a lot of time in lingerie, here mostly in a bustier, garter belt, stockings and first ankle boots then thigh high boots with the sort of heels from which chiropractic careers are made.

Vanda is not on the schedule of those to be auditioned, and Thomas is not keen to listen to one more melodramatic actress. He tries to get her to leave, and realizes this is futile. Vanda says she glanced at the sides, the pages of the script she needs for the audition, on the train ride over. Yet from her huge satchel, from which she extracts every prop they need, Vanda has a full, well-worn script. A script no one but the writer supposedly had. And she knows her lines as if she had been in rehearsals for months.

How this woman with a voice of sandpaper and the vocabulary of a drunken sailor transforms into the gentry in a nanosecond is amazing.  She talks the playwright into reading with her. Thomas agrees just to get rid of her, but can't help but fall under her spell. 

Thomas says he will read to the bottom of Page 3. She is so unexpectedly marvelous and so sexy that he keeps going. He has no choice. As they make their way through his play, the heat between them grows. Each plays a role, but she constantly pushes the script, the reality to one more step.

It's a strange, yet compelling dynamic between them. The two are never off the stage and never break. Just the physicality of her role is amazing, his longing for her palatable.

Yet when it is all over you can't help but ask yourself was she a vision, the conjuring up of a writer's imagination? Was she an actress, so desperate for a part who oddly  happens to be perfect for this one? Or, was she really Venus?
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus
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