Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Venus in Fur: Bring Me My Whip

Photo Provided by Production

Venus in Fur* written by David Ives and directed by Walter Bobbie is an infuriating, one trick pony play that may provide a platform for Nina Arianda to clutch a Tony award in June but offers little else.  The play is an under-developed work that inartfully obscures more than it artfully reveals. 

The play introduces "Vanda" an "actress" (Arianda) who arrives "late" for an audition with Thomas the director/playwright (Usually played by Hugh Dancy but I saw understudy Mark Alhadeff) and weasels her way into a reading.  The play within a play is an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs which explores power, sexual proclivities, arousal through pain, and gender dynamics. 

SPOILER ALERT.  But what really happens is Nina Arianda arrives, tears up the stage for 90 minutes in skimpy lingerie, spouts a lot of bad fake play dialogue, attempts to seduce the writer/director, but the motives for the seduction are left entirely unclear.  It becomes painfully apparent a few lines into the play that Vanda has some other agenda and is hiding something.  One expects the playwright Ives to explore what she is hiding but he doesn't.  Instead, he sets up a fake "mystery," gives the slow-pokes in the audience an "Aha!..What now?" moment 90 minutes later but doesn't ever really develop the characters in a meaningful way.  The play is structured to maintain "tension" between what Vanda claims she is there for and what her "real" motives are.  But again SPOILER ALERT....Ives choose not to ever reveal what her true motives are.  Now an open-ended finale is an artistic choice and one that I am comfortable with in other contexts.  But because Ives spends the entire show harping on that exact question, holding it up as really the ONLY question of the entire play, it seems utterly churlish to punk out at the end and not answer it. 

It probably did not help that Hugh Dancy was out the night I saw the play.  I'm not sure the "strength" of the play's power dynamic would have shifted if Dancy was on-stage but as I saw it performed it was Nina Arianda in a one-woman show with a mannequin of a man as her scene partner. 

Photo Provided by Production

This is a play like God of Carnage or Seminar where the playwright has some fun playing around with actors and dialogue but chooses not to delve into the material presented in any serious or substantial way.  And I'll be frank, I hate these kinds of plays.  If I wanted something with the depth of a sitcom, I'd sit on my sofa at home with the television on.  I personally expect more from the theater (unless it's a musical and then I make some allowances for the ridiculous).  That's just me.  I like character development.  I am a theater-crack-addict for humanity,  emotional connection and psychology.  You'd think a play that involves the work of Sacher-Masoch might explore psychology but it really doesn't.  I want my theater to say something or at least attempt to.

If you don't care about story, plot, character development, humanity or meaning then you might enjoy the "wild" ride this play offers up--by which I mean if you are kind of interesting in a mystery that involves a woman in lingerie and you don't really care about that mystery but like the woman in lingerie...well you are good.

Venus in Fur oddly reminded me of Magnolia the film by Paul Thomas Anderson.  I remember watching that film and accepting the magical realism, the coincidences, obviously interlaced stories because I believed as I watched the film that the director was trying to make a greater point about life or humanity....until frogs fell from the sky.  It was at that point in the movie it felt to me that Anderson basically said, "Yeah no I was just kidding, I don't have a clue what any of this means either...but I just made frogs falls from the sky.  Cool, eh?"  Not cool Paul.  Not cool.

I had a similar feeling about this play.  Because Ives chooses not to explore the reasons why Vanda seduces Thomas, or focus on specifics between these two characters, all we are left with is a 10,000 foot view of the "themes" of traditional and non-traditional power dynamics and gender roles.  But there is no actual heft to these themes as offered in the play.  They are bandied about as if something is being said, but really it's all window dressing for the "seduction."  It's just pseudo-intellectual babble to make people "think" there is a point but it is just as useless as the black leather skirt Arianda takes on and off as the play goes on.  Is it all just for titillation?  Is this what Broadway needs?   Do we really need a play that offers a female character, with no backstory, no character development, and whose greatest strength is manipulation through sexual seduction?  I'm gagging on my feelings of female empowerment.  Can I have my Silkwood shower now, because I feel dirty. 

Everyone raves about Arianda's performance in this play and how she is so incredible to watch.  But much like Thomas,  the audience members seem to have been blindly seduced by a chick in thigh-high, fuck-me boots.  I'm not sure what that says about the play, the audience or what people are seeking from Broadway theater.  Is that actually the point?  Are David Ives and P.T. Anderson off somewhere laughing it up?  Probably putting thigh high boots on frogs.

I will admit THAT would be funny.

In the end I would have rather watched Nina Arianda in Born Yesterday again. At least in that play, the woman uses her brain, her voice and not just her sex appeal.  Thank you Garson Kanin for your enlightened views from 1946. We miss you here in 2012. 

*Tickets were provided to me free of charge by the production as part of a "Blogger Night."  If it makes anyone associated with the production feel better I actually purchased two tickets to this show that I was unable to use.  So ultimately I've paid for this show and then some.


  1. I enjoyed the play more than you did, but I love this review.

    Spoiler alert: I could be wrong, but I don't think the ending is supposed to be open-ended. Is there another way to interpret it other than Vanda is Aphrodite taking her revenge?

  2. I think it could be interpreted that way. But I thought it was so inartfully done that if you blinked you might miss that interpretation and find yourself wondering if that was really what he intended or if you had received any closure at all. He probably didn't intend it to be open-ended but I don't think he really addressed it pointedly. But you've seen it more times than I have. ;)

  3. "It probably did not help that Hugh Dancy was out the night I saw the play."

    I don't think it especially hurt either. I didn't find the ending open ended, but so ham-fisted I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The whole thing struck me as tiresome blather frothing toward what I think was supposed to be a powerful feminist MESSAGE. One which might have still been cutting edge in the early 70s.

  4. Upon further reflection, I almost feel like "Vanda" was really his girlfriend Stacey and this was some elaborate role play.