S-E-X (or the suggestion of it, particularly in its kinkier form) is the principal reason why David Ives’ play “Venus in Fur” has been such a success, and was made into a film by Roman Polanski.
While it has its entertaining moments — and at the Goodman Theatre in a production directed by Joanie Schultz, it also has the impossibly leggy, catlike presence of Amanda Drinkall — “Venus” is just not a terribly good play. Strindberg’s 1888 classic “Miss Julie” as well as Philip Dawkins’ fascinating new “Miss Marx” (now at Strawdog Theatre) deal with the same subject, and do it better.
In “Venus in Fur,” Ives, a most clever wordsmith, has put a modern veneer on an 1870 novella by the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, source of the word “masochism.” The essential theme? The complex battle between the sexes for power and dominance, and the extremes of degradation and disillusion it can engender.
The place is a brick-walled rehearsal studio in New York (ideally designed by Todd Rosenthal). A thunderstorm rages outside. Inside, the effete director Thomas Novachek (Rufus Collins, understated and precise, if not wholly charismatic) has just completed hours of disappointing auditions for his stage version of the Sacher-Masoch novel. And he is on his phone, complaining to his fiance about how completely dim-witted and unsophisticated the young women who auditioned for him turned out to be.
Enter Vanda (Drinkall). Shrill, frantic and late, she seems just like all the women Thomas just rejected, and claims not to have read much of the script. But she has a big suitcase full of vintage costumes and a dominatrix-like outfit beneath her fake fur coat. And while she plays very dumb, she also plays very deftly with Thomas and convinces him to read with her.
And wouldn’t you just know it: Suddenly Vanda demonstrates an uncanny feel for the role of Wanda, the Venuslike woman one Severin von Kusiemski adores and wants to be dominated by. He begs her to make him her slave, and to degrade, punish and humiliate him. Though tentative at first, she soon takes control. And the reality of the director-actress, power-seduction game becomes a warped reflection of the play-within-a play scenario. Just how much of a manipulator Vanda Jordan really is gradually becomes fully apparent.
All this might have been shocking once upon a time. But having a sexy woman tie a man to a pole and play his captivity for all its worth is an exhausted cliche. And to claim “Venus in Fur” digs deeper is to fool oneself.