“Venus in Fur,” David Ives’ cheeky adaptation of Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s erotic 1870 novel and originally mounted at the Classic Stage Company, improves a lot in this Broadway transfer. Chalk that up to helmer Walter Bobbie’s savvy re-casting of one of the players in this two-hander: In his confident turn as a modern-day playwright-director keen on exploring the sado-masochistic sexual dynamic, Hugh Dancy gives hot co-star Nina Arianda someone substantial to play to. Play is still overwritten and pretentious, but it’s a whole lot sexier with this well-matched pair taking turns at playing master and slave.
Playwright Thomas Novachek (Dancy) disrespects the goddess of love from his first speech, delivered on a cell phone, in which he contemptuously dismisses the 35 actresses he has auditioned that day to play the heroine of his play. The crack of thunder and lightning that cuts off his call and dims the lights is a clear sign that this arrogant young man will live to regret his words.
But the woman who bursts into the rehearsal studio is no angry goddess — just another unsuitable actress, burdened with character props and furiously cursing herself for missing the audition. As deliciously played by Nina Arianda (“Born Yesterday”), Vanda Jordan is a caricature of the dumb actress Thomas has been railing about. But Thomas is something of a caricature himself, of the sadistic director who asserts his power over his actors by humiliating them.
Vanda wins the first round of this battle of the sexes when she wheedles Thomas into letting her audition. It’s a stunning moment when this dizzy creature drops the vulgar manner and slips effortlessly into the role of Vanda von Dunayev, the mysterious temptress in Sacher-Masoch’s kinky novel and the heroine of Thomas’s play. Arianda delivers the same quicksilver performance she gave Off Broadway, only this time she doesn’t have to carry the whole show by herself.
Dancy (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) has his fun with the insufferable Thomas, but he really gets into the game after Vanda talks the playwright into reading opposite her in the role of Kushemski, the masochistic aristocrat who can only find sexual pleasure under the booted heel of a dominatrix.
Vanda is happy to play that part — and she’s got the boots to make a convincing job of it. Strangely, she also seems to have intimate knowledge of both the script and the character she plays. By the time she and Thomas have broken out the whips and dog collars, both Arianda and Dancy have worked up a nice head of steam. (Although whatever made otherwise astute costumer Anita Yavich think that zipping up a zipper could be as erotic as lacing up a leather boot?)
But even at under two hours, the play still feels overworked, padded with repetitive seduction scenes and overwrought psycho-sexual arguments — much of it delivered in stilted 19th-century locutions. Talk about sadism.