David Ives (“New Jerusalem”) and his collaborator, helmer Walter Bobbie, take all the fun out of sexual power games in “Venus in Fur” by talking the subject to death. Nice idea, adapting Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s erotic 1870 novel to a contempo Off Broadway theater audition — notoriously fertile ground for the sado-masochistic dynamic between director and actor. The wit breaks down, though, once Ives starts piling on plot contrivances to support the thematic parallels. Even more of a misfire, scribe allows his protagonist to dilate at insufferable length on his own cleverness. The boot and the whip are too good for this bore.
Thomas Novachek (Wes Bentley), the author-director holding casting auditions for his modern-day stage treatment of Sacher-Masoch’s scandalous novel, is marked for humiliation from his first inflammatory speech. “Whatever happened to femininity?” he sneers into his cell phone, viciously mocking the 35 actresses he has just auditioned for their utter lack of grace or intelligence. “I’d be a better Vanda than half of these girls,” he rashly states, even if it means getting into drag.
Eventually, of course, it will come to that. Not the drag part — just the part about being feminized and sexually humiliated. And, surprise-surprise!, he’s going to love it.
The agent of this astounding transformation is Vanda Jordan (Nina Arianda), a ditsy, desperate actress with a slim resume and tons of chutzpah, who flies into the rehearsal hall and wheedles a last-minute audition. Arianda goes the distance on this endearing clown, giving us what is essentially a caricature of the Actress as a Dumb Blonde.
By introducing Vanda as the embodiment of Thomas’ worst nightmare, Ives shrewdly makes the audience complicit in his patronizing assessment of her. Which sets up the genuinely stunning moment when this young woman, completely in character as Vanda von Dunayev, unexpectedly delivers a poised, intelligent, technically polished scene reading. Like Thomas, we are amazed.
Unfortunately, the magic of the moment is lost once Thomas picks up the part of the young man destined to become her sex slave. Tentative as Thomas, Bentley (“American Beauty”) is downright wooden as his 19th century counterpart. And in this two-character play, he gets the lion’s share of the intellectually weighted lines.
Hanging in there, Arianda doesn’t let this get her down and delivers a wonderfully quicksilver perf, sliding in and out of her several personae as fluidly as Vanda slips in and out of her provocative costumes. (Fantasy S&M boots, bustiers, and dog collars courtesy of Anita Yavich, who must have had a ball shopping this show.)
What does it all mean, one might ask? Ives advances glib theories about kinky sexual practices as the enlightened route to male-female sexual liberation. But the academic tone makes it agony to sit through Thomas’ lugubrious lectures.
The 19th century play passages are even worse. (Sample dialogue: “Your heart is a vast stone desert.” “Insolent swine! How dare you speak to me in that tone! Bring me my other shoes.”)
Never mind the shoes. Bring on the whips.