"Enjoy without pity," commands Vanda (Nina Arianda), auditioning for a role in writer-director Thomas's (Wes Bentley's) new play. By this point, she's become increasingly confident--far from the ditsy, desperate actress who enters at the start--which is fitting, as the play within a play is an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, an author now most famous for being the root of the term "masochism." But it's less fitting for the play itself, David Ives's Venus in Fur, which is what really needs to be whipped into shape, rambling not only from comedy to drama, but from questions about gender and sexuality to those of the true nature of power. Enjoyment without pity is about as coldly fetishistic as one can get, worshiping the foibles of disconnect rather than the "operatic emotions" Thomas longs for.
Ives needs a ball-gag for his meta-masochistic impulses--a way to quiet his explanations and to let them speak for themselves. The most powerful scene is intensely silent and erotically charged (though ultimately cryptic): Thomas slowly zips two knee-high boots up Vanda's legs, and his surrendered self says more about his repressed feelings than the debates between the two over the meaning of a fetishistic memory. Ives knows that summing things up is trite, and yet does it constantly. He's also rather blatant about making his points--the doubling structure of the show aside--and so it's clear where Venus in Fur is going, straight down to the Greek mythology it pokes fun at. The one surprise of the play is achieved only by cheating, throwing away the excellent back-and-forth about symbolism to essentially theatrically blue-ball us: Vanda isn't an actress, nor a fidelity-testing spy for Thomas's fiancee, but in actually, a manifestation of Aphrodite herself (you know, Venus).
For all that, there is something exquisite in Arianda's performance--if nothing else, than the ease with which she continues to manipulate Thomas in increasingly subtle ways. Though at first Thomas is directing her--ironically at times, as when he pauses in the middle of surrendering Severin's command in order to command Vanda to stand elsewhere on stage--Vanda is soon the one giving him notes, be it the inclusion of a new scene at the start of the play, or the improvisation for how the play should end. Arianda shows both ends of her range simultaneously, cutting her coyness with steely persistence--and in general shows off, as much with her words as with her lingeried costume. (If we're going to talk openly about sex....)
However, Bentley is no match for her. He's obviously playing the submissive, but his constant ambiguity--both in character and out of it--make it hard to follow along. Nor does he mesh with Walter Bobbie's stark, fluorescent direction, which calls for decisive actions and moments. Often, Bentley simply becomes things, like the character he is reading for, but so suddenly that it hardly seems natural. It's far from being "explicable yet inextricable," Thomas's (and Ives's) central motif, that our actions can be explained, but our motives cannot.
In any case, relationships don't need to be between equals--they rarely are, and this play knows it--but they require real passion, and too much of Ives's script comes across as artificial, using a classic novel to take swings at modern conventions, and a modern frame to talk about classic psychology. The result is analytic when it should be emotional, and glib when it should be serious, and Venus in Fur is constantly undercutting its struggle by refusing to actually have stakes that are grounded in reality.