Venus in Fur Loses its Steam on Broadway

11/23/2011 8:00 AM |

Venus in Fur
Written by David Ives
Directed by Walter Bobbie

It's unusual today for a theater student fresh out of NYU to have such success in an Off Broadway play that she becomes a star overnight and lands a lead role on Broadway, but that's exactly what happened to Nina Arianda when she played the lead in David Ives's Venus in Fur at Classic Stage Company last year. After that play made such a hit, she scored the part of Billie Dawn in a revival of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday and received a Tony nomination. Now her star-making vehicle has made a move to Broadway (through December 18), and so naturally I was curious to see what all the fuss was about, but this second incarnation is likely a pale shadow of what worked downtown. The play is a two-hander, and it's remarkably flimsy: Ives takes a piece of classic erotic literature, Venus in Furs, and uses it liberally as the basis for a chatty encounter between an auditioning actress (Arianda) and a playwright, played downtown by Wes Bentley and uptown by Hugh Dancy.

I can't think of an easier way to whip up a play than putting together a two-character piece based around an audition with established material, and there aren't too many surprises here. There's no chemistry at all between the sprightly Arianda and the sensitive Dancy, and they both push their roles at every moment of the first half until in the second half they take such long pauses that you start to forget what has happened or is supposed to be happening between their characters. As I sat and stared at Dancy painstakingly pulling on Arianda's long black dominatrix boots for her, all I could think was that this play might have been fairly steamy at the intimate Classic Stage, but that the large Broadway house and the miscasting of the male lead lets all possible steam escape. The shape of Arianda's performance is still visible; she tries on a lot of costumes and accents and so forth, winning modest applause for her exertions sometimes, but the conceit of a connection between pretentious playwright and pushy actress becomes so thin by the midway point that it snaps, and all that's visible are two young actors shouting loudly at each other and then falling into more and more deathly silences. To be fair and above board, the night I saw the play someone in the audience had a radio of some kind playing faintly throughout the entire performance, with the barely perceptible sound of a choir followed by waves of applause, which didn't help anyone's concentration. In fact, it has to count as one of the most maddening experiences of not just my theatergoing life but my life in general, and if you think I'm being overly dramatic, well, you weren't there—or I hope you weren't. But that's the peril of live theater, and I know that there was higher emotion among audience members looking desperately around for the source of that noise than there ever was on stage.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)