Theatre Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ at Actor’s Express

Venus in FursBy Manning Harris

Actors’ Express is opening the season with “Venus in Fur,” a play that is funny, sexy, and dangerous—not an easy combination to pull off.  Written by David Ives and directed by David Crowe, it will run through Oct. 6.

It’s based on an 1870 German novel called “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.  Does his name sound a bit like sadomasochism?  That’s not an accident.  When playwright Ives was asked what he thought of the New York Times calling the play “good, kinky fun,” he replied, “I couldn’t have paid them for a better line!”  He was being partly facetious, but “Venus” may be the ultimate battle of the sexes.

A playwright and director named Thomas Novachek (Adam Fristoe) has just finished an exhausting day auditioning actresses for the lead in his adaptation of “Venus in Fur.”  He’s been unsuccessful and complains on the phone to his fiancée, Stacy, that young actresses today are vacuous, predictable, and boring.

At this moment a young woman bursts into the room, seemingly blown in by the thunderstorm; her name is Vanda (Veronika Duerr), and she rails against the weather, creeps on the subway, and the whole universe for attempting to thwart her aim:  She’s here to audition, and she is dead certain she is right for the part.

There are two roles in Thomas’ play—Severin von Kushemsky and a wealthy widow called Vanda (a coincidence?) von Danayev, who becomes Severin’s dominatrix muse.  Now a visit from one’s muse  may not always be sweetness and light.  Sometimes it may be thunderous and alarming, if not downright life-altering.

So it becomes in the increasingly mesmerizing relationship between Thomas and Vanda (from now on Vanda always refers to the actress played by Ms. Duerr), if indeed she can be called a muse.  One moment she barks with feisty New York confidence, “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism; I’m in the theatre!”  The next she whines plantively of mistreatment when it appears that Thomas wants “somebody who isn’t me,” and won’t let her audition.

But he relents—how he relents!  At this point the temptation to supply you with juicy details of the “adult” role-playing that ensues, the cat and mouse games that are played as it quickly becomes apparent that Thomas is auditioning as much as she—well, it’s almost overwhelming, but I shall resist.

Oh, here’s a quickie:  Vonda instructs Thomas to call fiancée Stacy and tell her he won’t be coming home tonight.  He says, “I can’t do that.”  Vonda purrs, “Oh, no?”  Then she growls, as she tightens the leather collar around his neck (you read that correctly), “You can’t?!”  He makes the call.

Lest you think that we are descending into outright porn, actor Hugh Dancy (the Broadway Thomas) commented that “We barely touch in the play; all the intimacy is created by moments that don’t quite happen.”  He was referring to his acting partner Nina Arianda, who won a Tony for this performance in 2012.  Walter Bobbie, the Broadway director of “Venus,” commented about the two actors:  “It’s beyond direction; it’s beyond writing; it’s just pure charisma.”

So much is required of Veronica Duerr; that she delivers in spades does not surprise me.  I well remember her unique comic gifts in the Express’ “Becky Shaw” in 2010.  Her sexiness, however, is a welcome jolt.  This is a star-making role.  That Mr. Fristoe keeps up with her and even adds a few surprises of his own is a huge compliment.  Leave the kids at home and immerse yourself into 95 minutes of total, titillating (I mean that in the nicest possible way, as Dame Edna would say) theatre.

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