Theatre Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ live at Pinch ‘N’ Ouch

Mustapha Slack and Rose Mancuso in “Venus in Fur.”

Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre has resurrected live theatre in Atlanta for this viewer in a dynamite production of David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” directed by Grant McGowen. Originally scheduled to run through April 24, the show has been extended until May 15. Check their website for exact details. It was blissful to experience live theatre with a live audience again!

“Venus in Fur” is funny, sexy, and a little dangerous—not an easy combination to pull off. 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 2011 Broadway production “good, kinky fun,” he said, “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. With a revelatory, electrifying performance by Rose Mancuso and superb work by Mustapha Slack, we are on the edge of our seats.

A playwright and director named Thomas Novachek (Mr. Slack) 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 that moment, with lightning and a thunderclap, a young woman bursts into the room; her name is Vanda (Ms. Mancuso), 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 named 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.

Soon Vanda pulls out the tattered script she has mysteriously acquired and leaps into character with a rollicking conviction that unsettles Thomas and thrills the audience (us).

It is when Vanda and Thomas begin performing their roles in his play—the nobleman Kushemsky, whose youthful encounter with a birch-wielding aunt has given him a taste for the pleasure in pain, and Vanda Dunayev, a woman he meets at a resort and implores to subjugate him—that the psychosexual fun and games in “Venus in Fur” really begin.

A quick example: Vonda instructs Thomas to call his fiancée and tell her he won’t be coming home tonight. He says, “I can’t do that.” Vonda purrs: “Oh, no?” Then she growls, “You can’t?!”as she tightens the leather collar around his neck (that’s right). 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.” But you know what they say about anticipation. Oh—Dancy was referring to his acting partner Nina Arianda, who won a Tony in 2012 for this performance.

Beyond the writing, beyond Mr. McGowen’s deft, able direction, for “Venus” to work we’ve got to have two actors with charisma. Much is required of Ms. Mancuso: She delivers in spades; she has range and depth and comic sense that mesmerize the audience. That Mr. Slack keeps up with her and adds a few surprises of his own (like revealing the sexiness in vulnerability) 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.

Manning Harris

Manning Harris the theatre critic for Atlanta Intown.