Venus in Fur

Now playing at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway.

I have always suspected that for some star-making roles, the magic is all in the part itself and any competent actor lucky enough to land the role could ride it to acclaim. But if that's true in some cases, it absolutely isn't true of Venus in Fur. Nina Arianda is unforgettable as Vanda, the dominant presence in the play (in every sense), but that's in large part because it's such a high-wire role. It's all too easy to imagine how unconvincing the character could be in other hands. Capturing Vanda's subtle wit and quicksilver tonal shifts cannot possibly be easy, and few actresses have the burning charisma and imposing physicality required to convey the woman's utter mastery of the action on stage. Playwright David Ives needed nothing short of a goddess to make Venus in Fur work; it is to everyone's good fortune that the play's producers landed upon Arianda.

Fringe

Fridays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Twelve episodes into the fourth season.

The best thing about science fiction (or any fantastic genre) is how escaping the confines of a strictly realistic setting allows the storyteller to address real issues from a fresh angle. Aliens, for example, aren't necessarily all that compelling in and of themselves (I faithfully watched seven years of The X-Files, where the little green men or gray men or black oil slicks or whatever were nearly always the least interesting things on screen, so I know this for a fact), but aliens as a vehicle for addressing how people deal with the unknown, or how majority groups deal with minorities, or how we conceptualize humanity—that's compelling. Idle fancies can be fun, but the best speculative fiction ultimately returns to earth.

Initially, Fringe was a textbook example of idle, empty science fiction: a facile yet muddled X-Files rip-off in which a top-secret division of the FBI investigates strange paranormal events while powerful shadowy figures manipulate them and their results—diverting enough but hardly promising and extremely derivative. But then, improbably, the writers settled on a brilliant explanation for the paranormal "fringe events": the slow collision of two parallel worlds. With that essential conflict at its core, Fringe has developed a gorgeously baroque mythology and, even better, used it as the foundation for thoughtful, poignant explorations of identity and personal history and guilt and love. In short, when it was just about creepy things going bump in the night, Fringe was dull; now that it's given those sci-fi elements real resonance, it's perhaps the most underrated drama on TV.

The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern. Published in 2011.

Emily Dickinson described books in general as frigates, "to take us Lands away," but in my experience, only the special ones actually accomplish that. Those are my favorites, transporting you to another place, sometimes foreign or alien or fantastic, sometimes a near mirror of home, but definitely elsewhere. The details conjure smells and sights and sounds with enough resonance to give your imagination material to fill in the rest, and the characters seem to continue living outside the pages. The depth and breadth of the setting invites you to linger longer than the plot does, and past and future extend beyond the story's boundaries.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, is one of those rare frigates, so immersive that reading it is like jumping into a cool, clear pond and discovering you can breathe underwater. An elegant grown-up fairy tale, suffused with magical and ahistorical period color, it spins its love story with delicacy and ever-increasing warmth, but the real accomplishment is the setting, the circus for which the novel is named. So evocative, so beautifully and ardently rendered, the spellbinding circus is a wonder to visit.

Les Carillons, Polyphonia, and DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, February 5.

I learned after the fact that New York City Ballet's all-Wheeldon program was a special honor for the relatively young choreographer, something usually done only with the works of George Balanchine or Jerome Robbins, but when I bought my ticket, it never occurred to me that the programming was anything out of the ordinary. Wheeldon's work has been a constant in City Ballet repertory for the half a dozen (!) years I've been attending, and I'm sure I've seen more of his pieces than Robbins's.

The program this weekend demonstrated why that's the case, why the company created the role of resident choreographer for Wheeldon in 2001 and why it continues to champion his work even after his departure in 2008. Even in his weaker pieces, Wheeldon's aesthetic fits New York City Ballet. Often playful but always elegant, acutely conscious of music, making gorgeous use of the corps, his work truly does feel descended from (though not derivative of) Balanchine's. He can justify a full program easily.