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“I hate the audition process,” sighed provocateur playwright David Mamet in a 2005 Los Angeles Times essay. “As an actor, I found it demeaning. As a writer and director, I find it damn near useless.”
It’s David Ives, not Mamet, whose fertile imagination begat Venus in Fur, a wickedly ingenious dark comedy that premiered in New York last year and has now arrived at Studio Theatre in a new production that finds its whip-smarts fully intact. But Mamet’s essay, “The Tyranny of the Audition,” could’ve contributed a perfectly descriptive moniker for Ives’s play had the latter not already borrowed the name of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s scandalous 19th century novella about a man who derives sexual pleasure from being abused.
Ives’ play is not a straightforward adaptation of the novella. He presents us instead with a youngish, famous-ish, not-yet-rich theater artiste who’s trying to cast his new adaptation thereof. After a long day’s fruitless search for an age-appropriate, articulate, and sexy “actress who can actually pronounce the word ‘degradation’ without a tutor,” playwright-director Thomas is surprised when a woman barges into his shabby studio from out of the rain, all self-flagellating apologies for showing up hours late for an audition he can’t even find on the schedule. He tries to blow her off but you know she’s going to read for him anyway, and if any ladies or actors or lady actors are getting vapors hearing such a brazen male wish-fulfillment scenario recounted, just you wait. As Vanda pries off her rain poncho to reveal her patent leather (or vinyl?) bondage gear—just wait, I said!—the balance of power between omnipotent creator and helpless actor has already begun its hypnotic migration across the stage.
Vanda makes for a shipwreck of a 21st-century Manhattanite, but as a refined lady of “eighteen-hundred-whenever,” she’s something of a ringer. Persuading Thomas to let her audition continue well past the rain-pulped audition pages she glanced at on her way over, she casts him as Sacher-Masoch’s deviant Severin. Thomas insists the character bears no resemblance to himself, but once he tries on the suspiciously well-fitting Viennese frock coat Vanda has in her trash-bag of tricks, he’s in no hurry to take it off.
It’s difficult to recall another piece so precariously dependent not only upon the brilliance of its performers but on their lockstep synchronicity. As playwright and player, Christian Conn and Erica Sullivan are equal partners in a shared performance, and it’s a knockout.
Vocally and physically, Vanda reveals unsuspected versatility and power at exactly the times of her choosing. She is simultaneously what Lou Reed (in The Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs”) called a “whiplash girl-child in the dark” and what film critic Nathan Rabin, some decades later, coined a “manic pixie dreamgirl.” That’d be a quirky and carefree young woman who exists only to nurse some privileged dude through his luxuriously low-stakes crisis. It’s a fucked-out archetype that has sank many a self-impressed romantic dramedy, and to be fair, buoyed at least a handful of good ones. In Ives’s hands (and Sullivan’s everything) it’s a completely legit, even necessary characterization, for reasons that are no less gratifying for being fairly easy to guess.
Conn’s is a less showy role, but no less compelling a performance. His Thomas is so enlivened by Vanda’s presence that he’s only fitfully aware of the wounds as Vanda flays off his layers of vanity, delusion, and aspiration. A generous performer, Conn shares with us Thomas’s delight in discovery; his expression when Vanda effortlessly adjusts the lighting scheme of his shabby rented room to something more mood-appropriate is as fairly earned a laugh as when Vanda secures a dog collar around his throat and deigns to pay him a compliment: “Very fetching.”