BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Making a thrilling debut off Broadway in “Venus in Fur” last year, newcomer actress Nina Arianda has since graced a couple of films, including Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” and then scored a Tony nomination for her delightful work as Billie Dawn in the recent Broadway revival of “Born Yesterday.”
Anybody who missed Arianda’s breathtaking acting in “Venus in Fur” now has a chance to see her do it again – even better than before -- in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway transfer of the show, which opened Tuesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
By all means, grab a chaise longue for this fascinating, steamy play driven by Arianda’s bewitching performance.
A cunningly crafted and layered comedy-drama by David Ives, “Venus in Fur” is imaginatively drawn from a same-named erotic Victorian novel about a European nobleman becoming enslaved by a highly-bred beauty of unexpected powers.
Ives places this story into a contemporary New York frame as Thomas, a playwright-director, ends a wearying day of auditioning actresses for his dramatization of “Venus in Fur.” Into the rehearsal room crashes the kooky Vanda, a flustered thespian who obviously is clueless about the source material and role except that they involve S&M kink. “I am like perfect for this part,” she keeps insisting.
Eventually the doubting Thomas permits Vanda to audition, whereupon this loosey-goosey girl instantly turns into a swan with cultured accents and an insinuating manner.
Many more surprises and reversals in power are in store for Thomas before the 90-minute play concludes with a supernatural twist.
The uproarious laughter erupting from the clashes between Vanda and Thomas later evolves into pin-drop silences as the dark psychosexual forces within the story grip the characters. Rarely does a play of such genuine and palpable eroticism make its way to Broadway and this one may well leave you gasping.
Arianda’s partner in Classic Stage Company’s original was Wes Bentley, who was decorative but stolid. In this production, Arianda gets sexy with Hugh Dancy, an actor of considerable depth whose burning presence as Thomas stokes the two-character play with more heat and intensity than his predecessor.
Dancy’s portrayal is handsome but the range of Arianda’s fluent performance is astonishing. Arianda’s heartbeat transitions between that dizzy Vanda and the elegant dominatrix she depicts are hilarious, even while her glinting eyes hint at a greater force lurking behind those characters. Talk about seductive stage magic: Arianda is one of those chameleons who looks homely at one moment and then gorgeous in the next. Phew. Where do I sign up for the fan club?
David Ives has written many imaginative plays and “Venus in Fur” is among his best works. The smart way in which Ives’s subtle text underscores the story’s themes and establishes its different worlds is brilliant in terms of both language and structure.
The many and frequent shifts in mood and the witty contrasts between modern and Victorian modes that the play demands are beautifully directed by Walter Bobbie. The play’s latter scenes of seduction are served by Bobbie with extraordinary skill. Designer John Lee Beatty’s deceptively plain setting for the rehearsal room, Anita Yavich’s costumes that bridge the story’s periods and Peter Kaczorowski’s mood-making lighting provide excellent support for the play.
“Venus in Fur” continues through Dec. 18 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.