Several minutes into David Ives’s Venus in Fur at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse, Vanda (Jenni Putney), makes a remarkable transformation from frazzled and flustered actress to an upper-class nineteenth-century woman of poise and confidence. Having convinced Thomas (Mark Alhadeff), a playwright/director holding auditions for his leading lady, to grant her a few minutes to read a few pages, Vanda whirls herself around an on-stage pillar and snaps into character. Instantly, the crass, obnoxious actress becomes the elegant, self-consciously dignified lead character of Thomas’s play. The transition is so abrupt and pronounced that the mood of the entire play—of the entire theater, even—shifts with it. Comedy gives way instantaneously to melodrama as we go from a context of cheap sight gags to tense romance.
But for such a transition to be effective, the initial character needs to be insufferable, and while Ms. Putney gets full marks for achieving such an effect, her success does not make the time we spend with her actress character any less grating.
This tension is indicative of this play’s many problems: its plot relies almost entirely on broadly drawn oppositions and an overly contrived plot. Its humor cannot be subtle and is therefore overstated, its much-touted sex-appeal is forced and therefore largely hollow, and its deus-ex-machina conclusion is tritely manufactured.
The play takes place within a small rehearsal space where Thomas has spent an exhausting day auditioning actresses to play the lead in his new play, itself titled Venus in Fur. Thomas has adapted for the stage Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s (from whose names derives the term masochism) famous 19th-century novella, Venus in Furs and, having grown frustrated with a history of directors failing to capture his vision, has decided to direct the production himself. As he concludes a long day, Vanda—ironically and conveniently bearing the same name as the leading lady from Thomas’s script—stumbles through the door, late for auditions. Her overbearing boisterousness immediately aggravates Thomas, who does his best to shoo her right back out the door she came in so that he can make it home for dinner with his fiancé.
After Vanda convinces Thomas to placate her with a reading, her seemingly magical transformation dazzles the playwright, stunned to find that such a powerfully elegant performance could come from such an awkwardly obtuse performer. Vanda’s adroitness convinces Thomas to allow her to read on, and over the course of Ives’s play we see the two performers work through the bulk of Thomas’s play, moving in and out of character as they craft the performance and a relationship defined by an odd combination of attraction and curiosity.
As Ives’s play progresses, and as tension builds as to who is really running the audition, we witness any number of contrived transpositions: the actor becomes the director, the director the actor; the dominant becomes the subordinate, the subordinate the dominant; the man becomes the woman, the woman the man. All of this is enveloped in the imposed sexual tension of Thomas falling in love with his character, and Vanda stepping into the power position within the play’s S&M framework. Unsurprisingly, we find that Thomas’s attraction to Sacher-Masoch’s erotica may have been more than simply aesthetic, as Ives’s play blurs the many distinctions between artist and art.
Ives’s play uses sexual tension as a vehicle through which to progress its plot, and under the direction of Kip Fagan Ms. Putney and Mr. Alhadeff move fluidly through the trappings of sexiness without ever achieving much of a spark. Thomas gradually cedes his power as director to become the subordinate lover while Vanda ascends from needy actress to dominant mistress, but the shifts in their roles from the audition to the play-within-the-play are so stark and abrupt that the eventual blurring of those lines seems insincere. As the distinctions between performers and performance grow increasingly unstable, the characters grow increasingly distant from the audience. Vanda’s deep familiarity with Thomas’s script that she claims only to have skimmed suggests a layer of the play and the characters lying unexplained below the surface of the plot, and as a result much of the play’s latter half becomes a simple waiting game for its reveal.
While ninety-minute plays are always a welcome refresher from the more common theatrical marathons, Venus in Fur’s brevity comes at the expense of character development on which its plot must rely. The little bit we know about these characters are the precise details necessary to make the plot work, suggesting a play that operates from concept back through characters. Thomas and Vanda seem to be less people than they do components of an idea, and the result is a play constructed around engineered emotion and trite morality.