I first covered Venus in Fur over two years ago, back at CSC, with Wes Bentley opposite an already stunning Nina Arianda: I thought it was a sexually charged play that needed to work out its own kinks (pun intended) so that it might express itself more suggestively and less literally. I'll admit now that I was wrong about that: this is a play about dominance, and so it's necessary that the orders be barked, and that control be wrested not just in the play-within-a-play, but between the actress and actor outside of that, Vanda (Arianda) and Thomas (Hugh Dancy). I don't think David Ives has tightened up much of the script, though Walter Bobbie, no longer playing to three sides of a theater, has certainly improved the thrust of the action, especially the more intense moments; instead, this is just a case of all parties -- myself as a writer, and Arianda as an vibrant young actress -- maturing and coming to terms with the deeper needs of the script.
However, I'm unfortunately stuck with the same complaint I had with Bentley's performance, which is that the back-and-forth between the two remains unbalanced and without nearly as much chemistry or punch as one desires -- this, most likely due to the fact that Mark Alhadeff was called in to replace Dancy for this evening's performance. While Alhadeff is a fine actor, he doesn't come across as tough enough to handle a live wire like Arianda. While her wattage fluctuates throughout the night, his remains static; only occasionally is there enough friction to actually spark some tension between the two. When he says that "There can be nothing more sensuous than pain, nothing more pleasurable than degradation," they're just words, but when she quips that "You don't have to tell me about sadomasochism, I'm in the theater," every word lands a punch. And while it's true that she's meant to be the more extroverted, energetic of the two, from the moment she runs into the theater with an umbrella, squealing her apologies and stripping to her lingerie, Alhadeff must do more than play a lethargic opposite; at some point, mustn't he feel the thrill that the audience receives from Arianda's deft command? As she often instructs, he must appear ambiguous, not ambivalent.
In any case, for a play about sex and identity -- however muddled the supernatural ending remains -- Venus in Fur remains fleetly funny, though that's no surprise from an author as experienced as Ives. Moreover, the play-within-a-play framework is a surprisingly excellent choice, not just because of the director/actor relationship, but in the sense of the dual auditions that are occurring, to say nothing of all that glorious subtext. This is a play that really needs two evenly matched stars to provide it with bite and momentum, but on nights when those two align, I'll bet Venus in Fur is really something.