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.

Arianda plays Vanda, a seemingly dizzy, unprepared actress who blows in late to an audition. Thomas (Hugh Dancy), the playwright and director, is in a foul mood—we’ve just heard him spouting venomous scorn for the actresses he’s already seen—but Vanda is relentless, and Thomas finally agrees to let her try out and, since everyone else has already gone home for the day, to read opposite her.

His play is an adaptation of Venus in Furs, the novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—from whose name, Thomas condescendingly explains to the actress, the word masochism is derived. Our Vanda is auditioning to play the role of Sacher-Masoch’s Vanda (what a coincidence!), a forthright young woman whom the protagonist, Severin, convinces to embody his sexual fantasies by abusing and humiliating him over a period of months.

The actress Vanda proves remarkably adept at portraying the character Vanda, stepping into and out of the role with unnerving abruptness. She also flatters Thomas, praising his portrayal of Severin and pausing frequently to ask him to explain his dramatic choices and the characters’ motivation—first with girlish guilelessness but, increasingly, with teasing pointedness. Gradually the playwright realizes that this Vanda knows the material far better than she first led him to believe.

Ives’s play is styled as something of a cat-and-mouse act between Vanda and Thomas, with first one and then the other holding the power during her extended audition, but it doesn’t quite work that way. Vanda is clearly toying with Thomas, seeing him far more clearly than he sees her, so even when Thomas believes he has put Vanda in her place (as he imagines it), she’s obviously biding her time before she lures him into another shameful admission.

If Ives wanted his characters evenly matched, he failed in that, but I don’t think keeping the pair in the same weight class is a dramatic requirement. Vanda’s truly impressive dominatrix boots notwithstanding, Venus in Fur is as much about Severin/Thomas’s genteel misogyny as his masochism, and that misogyny is what makes him underestimate Vanda, her intellect and insights, and her own desires. Dancy plays that self-deceptive arrogance well, and even if Thomas is utterly outmatched, he doesn’t go down without a fight.

Yet even with only two actors onstage, Dancy is always in a supporting role; Arianda is the incontrovertible lead. Tall and long-legged, with a broad smile and cascades of blond curls, she can flip from ditzy to Amazonian without blinking, but as the play goes on—and Vanda starts teasing Thomas as to who, exactly, she is—she begins blurring the distinction between personas, constantly catching Thomas off balance. It’s a breathtakingly complex role, and Arianda handles every nuance flawlessly. Her performance is enthralling.

Moreover, it’s hilarious. Arianda’s shrewd comic timing keeps the play from bogging down in all its meta melodrama. Her Vanda is unspeakably funny, equally deft with velvety quips and whip-like gibes, and the switches between personas are timed as much for comedic effect as dramatic impact. I had my doubts about whether a morose proto-masochist romantic novella was really sex comedy material, but somehow Ives accomplishes that alchemy, and with Arianda in his corner, the play works even better than it should.

Ives muddies the thematic waters toward the end of the play, sacrificing some coherence for a flashy climax, but given the subject matter, it’s hard to begrudge him that—especially when he’s so playful with regard to Vanda’s true identity. And with the majestic Arianda in the role, you can easily imagine that Vanda truly is a sensuously vindictive Aphrodite, descending from Olympus to lacerate any man so bold as to tarnish a perfectly succulent kink with contempt. Realistic? Maybe not, but it makes for a perversely fun night at the theater.