11 July 2011

'Venus in Fur' (Studio Theatre, Washington, D.C.)

[A few days ago, I published a report on the revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1980 hit play, Amadeus. I saw two plays while I was in Washington last month; the second was the David Ives two-character play Venus in Fur, originally staged here in New York City in the spring of 2010 at the Classic Stage Company in the East Village. Here’s my appraisal of the Studio Theatre revival of Venus in Fur.]
The day right after I accompanied my mother to the stunning revival of Amadeus at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda (see ROT, 6 July), Mom and another friend had seats for Venus in Fur at the Studio Theatre. The performance of David Ives’s long one-act on Sunday, 29 June, was also a matinee, staged in the Studio’s small second-floor space, the Milton Theatre.

For those who haven’t heard of this play from last season in New York, it’s a metatheater play: a play about a play. This one’s a little like the painters’ frequent subject, the artist and his model; it can also be seen as a twist on the Pygmalion-Galatea story. When Vanda, an actress between roles, arrives late and unscheduled for an audition, playwright-director Thomas, closing up the studio after a discouraging session, grudgingly allows her to read for his new play, an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, Venus in Furs. (Yes, he’s the guy whose name psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing borrowed to coin the term ‘masochism.’ Gives you an idea what territory we’re in.) The Austrian novella is something of a “metabook” itself: it centers on the reading of a book—a manuscript, actually. The manuscript’s the story of Severin, who’s so obsessed with Wanda—pronounced in German just like the name of the actress auditioning for the character—that he asks her to make him her slave, urging her to use him in increasingly debasing ways. “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism,” say Vanda in Ives’s play. “I’m in the theater.” With Thomas reading Serverin opposite Vanda, what begins as a fairly normal (if slightly—but only slightly—exaggerated) audition soon becomes a progressively seductive struggle for control. (Vanda arrives dressed in leather, wearing a dog collar, and carrying a trash bag full of props and costume pieces. Believe me, dressing the part and bringing props isn’t unheard of in the real world.) Ives shifts the action from the audition to the play-within-the-play and back again, and the actress and director engage in a game of give and take in which who gives and who takes shifts more often than the action. Gender roles are reversed (and then reversed again) in this acting tour de force, though the force (from the acting perspective, I mean) is mostly with the woman’s part. It’s no wonder that the actress who played the role Off-Broadway essentially became a star the day the reviews came out. (The actress in the D.C. production pretty much took all the reviews there, too. Vanda’s clearly the money gig in this script.)

Venus in Fur was staged in New York City from 26 January to 28 March 2010 by the Classic Stage Company at their theater on East 13th Street in the East Village. Directed by Walter Bobbie, it starred Wes Bentley as Thomas and Nina Arianda as Vanda. The reviews were generally strong, with the New York Times calling it a “tasty new comedy” and a “nifty, skillfully wrought entertainment, an enjoyable game of kitten-with-a-whip and mouse.” The New Yorker described Venus as a “wildly intelligent and sometimes frightening new play” and Back Stage, the weekly theater trade paper, asserted that “Ives turns what could have been a comic sketch into a devastatingly surreal examination of sex and power.” The New York Post said it was “exciting, but a challenge,” however, and “though filled with zingers,” reported the Daily News, Ives’s play “gets repetitive midway and leads to a lame conclusion.” (Arianda, a newcomer just out of NYU, stole almost all the reviews, won several awards for her performance, and landed the role of Billie Dawn in the recent Broadway revival of Born Yesterday starring Robert Sean Leonard and Jim Belushi. Last spring, Arianda was nominated for a Tony as best actress for that performance. She was also the subject of a recent New York Times profile by Patricia Cohen recounting her unusual background and career path: “A Storybook Ascent For One Actress,” 28 May 2011.)

Usually I start my theater reports with a critique of the play and then move into the production, ending with a description of the directing and acting. Let me turn that around this time and get right into the stage work in this 90-minute, intermissionless, one-act production at Washington’s Studio Theatre. Then we can talk about Ives’s play.

To begin with, the play demands a variation on what Timothy J. Wiles called “schizoid acting.” (The late Wiles, a professor of literature and drama at Indiana University, was the author of The Theater Event [1980].) Despite the misapplication of the word according to our understanding of schizophrenia today, this is an acting phenomenon that’s usually manifested by an actor appearing as both a performer enacting a role and a person with opinions and responses, a Brechtian performance. (It’s sometimes also called a “split” or “divided” actor.) In Venus, the actors don’t appear as themselves, but as two different characters: director Thomas, played by Christian Conn, and actress Vanda, Erica Sullivan, and the characters Severin and Wanda. This is complicated further because Conn and Sullivan aren’t just portraying Severin and Wanda, but Thomas and Vanda as Severin and Wanda—a performative palimpsest. The trick, of course, is making sure that the two sets of characters are distinctive enough to be differentiated but that the second characters, Severin and Wanda, have a recognizable component of the first, Thomas and Vanda. The ultimate burden is on the actors, of course, but both the director, David Muse, and, I gather, playwright Ives, had a hand in solving the acting problem.

Ives has indicated that when the actors are playing the diegetic roles, the characters in Thomas’s play inside Ives’s play (both plays have the same title), they speak with sham English accents to distinguish them from Thomas and Vanda. This also establishes an artificial quality to the diegetic play scenes different from the more natural scenes between the director and the actress. It was up to Muse to guide Conn and Sullivan to the right level of artificiality and keep them on the same scale, and the actors not only had to realize this dual dynamic but make the sharp break between the enacted play scenes and the outer, present-moment scenes when the actors behave realistically. Conn was saddled with two difficulties: first, his character isn’t an actor, so his performances as Severin have to be less vibrant than Vanda; second, Vanda gets all the best lines, as they say. (That this may be a scriptual imbalance is evidenced by the fact that several New York reviews gave Wes Bentley wan notices for his work in the part.) As the play unfolds, Conn’s character becomes less and less interesting except as a foil for Vanda. I don’t think Conn or Muse could have done anything with this situation; it’s endemic to the script, drawing all the attention to Vanda and, therefore, Sullivan. Thomas’s very ordinariness, which Conn had to play if the play is to work, puts him in Vanda’s shadow. Conn handled the shifts from Thomas to Severin well enough—they’re a little contrived in the text, I think—but the changes often aren’t as diametric as Vanda/Wanda’s so they’re not as showy or actorly.

Then the question becomes whether the actress playing Vanda is up to the job of carrying the play. I can’t compare Sullivan to Arianda (which is just as well), but I’ll say that Sullivan took charge of Vanda and the stage as thoroughly as Vanda took over the audition studio. She bursts into the drab little room, familiar to anyone who’s ever gone through an audition for Off-Off-Broadway or even Off-Broadway, where the amenities are fewer. I’ve been on both sides of that circumstance—as an actor and as a director hearing actors’ auditions. I’ve been in that room somewhere in New York City. I’ve also seen actors like Vanda seems to be blow into the audition, all discombobulated and disorganized, yammering about the traffic, the subways, the weather, whatever, in a whiny or braying or nasally voice. You just know they’re not going to measure up. (Believe me, in the real world, you can be as fooled as Thomas is about Vanda.) Sullivan nailed the entrance and the establishment of the character. What she went on to do, the aspect that’s not usually part of real life, was begin to intimate that the person we see isn’t necessarily the person beneath the leather bustier and rain-wet hair. (Many of us have heard the story, apparently true, of Barbra Streisand’s audition for Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, her first Broadway try-out. She entered the stage wearing a raccoon coat and mismatched shoes, pages of sheet music falling loose behind her, and loudly chewing a mouthful of gum. She sat on a stool center stage and stuck the gum under the seat. After the audition, Arthur Laurents looked under the chair—there was no wad of gum there at all. But they remembered Streisand!) Vanda intimates that she may not be exactly what she seems (or that what she hints at might not be true), and Sullivan made you wonder where, if anywhere, the facts lay. It was a sly performance that only hinted at another reality that existed in the actress’s head and never got revealed on stage.

Sullivan attacked the role with so much verve and energy it was hard to resist her performance, even if she hadn’t done so well. (Sullivan used a quasi-New Jersey/New York accent for Vanda, and either she deliberately selected a non-specific accent—perhaps because Vanda’s putting that on, too—or Sullivan couldn’t nail an actual regional pattern. The dialect coach was Gary Logan.) She shifted back and forth, not only between Vanda, the actress, and Wanda, the dominatrix, but among several variations of, particularly, Vanda, so mercurially and so credibly that it was astonishing. (If Arianda did this better, I can’t imagine what her performance could have been like!) She pulled props and costume bits from her plastic bag like a demented Santa Claus and adjusted the lights in the studio to create just the right atmosphere—taking over the job of director, designer, and stage manager—and essentially turning the audition into her own piece of performance art. Not just Vanda, but Sullivan was in complete control of this stage at all times, as soon as she got in the room. She was by turns seductive, cajoling, teasing, joking, controlling—whatever it took to get the part—though that may not be all Vanda’s after. Conn did as good a job as an actor, playing the (ahem) straight man, letting Vanda take over the audition as Thomas, who turns over his director’s authority to the actress almost unwittingly, and then falls under the thrall of Wanda when he becomes Severin. Thomas—but not Conn—displays a whiff of uncertainty from time to time, as if events were moving too fast for the man to follow. Conn’s (as well as Ives’s and Muse’s) problem, as I said, was that the role becomes almost invisible when Vanda’s at full tilt.

According to the Studio Theatre staff, director Muse had the production moved from a larger space, the Metheny Theatre on the first floor, to the tiny Milton Theatre to keep the production intimate. The Milton’s a small thrust theater whose acting area (it’s not a raised platform) is semicircular. I’d say it seats about 200 spectators, which really is ideal for this small play. Muse kept the actors moving in the audition room, which had a chaise longue, a table and chair (for the director), a vertical pipe in the center like a stripper’s pole, and a door and a window upstage on the whitewashed plaster wall, where the light controls (of which Vanda makes frequent good use) were located. (The set was by Blythe R. D. Quinlan, lit by Michael Lincoln.) It was spare, barren, drab, shabby—and depressing if you have to spend a day there (as Thomas has by the time Vanda rushes in). Although a normal audition would probably entail the actors just sitting and reading from the script (a reader had already left by the time Vanda gets there), but I never felt as if Muse were inventing action just to keep the scenes moving. Vanda (and Ives) has taken care of the rationale for the movement, which is pretty constant and often vigorous. Given the script, it never seemed anything but natural and organic, and Muse and the cast avoided the problem I saw in the CSC production of Ives’s New Jerusalem in 2008—the need to move the actors around a thrust stage just so all three sides of the audience could see them. I said that I didn’t think Muse could have made Thomas a more engaging stage presence, but in all other respects he handled the actors nicely. (He had a good deal of help with this from Ives, who said, “I always think a playwright’s job is to let actors do their stuff.” In Venus, he gave them a solid platform on which to do that.)

This all sounds terrific, and from a purely acting perspective, it was. You could teach an acting class from this work, both from the performances on view and from the demands of the script. (You know this script will turn up in every scene study class from New York to L.A. as soon as the play’s published.) In the Washington City Paper, Chris Klimek called the play “a wickedly ingenious dark comedy” presented at the Studio with “its whip-smarts fully intact.” Klimek praised the paired performances as “a knockout” and in the Washington Post, Peter Marks labeled the production “rollicking.” But Marks added that Venus “ultimately gives itself away too cutely” and concluded, in an apt phrase: “It’s not a major work, just a smart scoopful of fun, a delectably compressed actors’ pas-de-deux . . . .” Ives’s text, though, caused problems for me and I began to lose focus about halfway through. I’ve already quoted Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News, but Marilyn Stasio said in Variety: “The wit breaks down, though, once Ives starts piling on plot contrivances . . . .” As this suggests, the drama is phony—it’s ordained by the playwright, not organic to the circumstances, and Ives attenuates the conflicts in order to fill 90 minutes. I may not always have known exactly what was coming next, but I knew another set-up was going to come in which Vanda/Wanda would take power over Thomas/Severin. How many times can we watch this and not get antsy? Ives goes over my limit, and I started to twitch in my seat. This fundamental flaw is exacerbated by the fact that an awful lot of Ives’s play is made up of scenes from Thomas’s script. While the acting was fine, the lines are taken apparently pretty much verbatim from Sacher-Masoch (I’m guessing: I’ve never read the Austrian novel) and the 19th-century language is stiff ("Your heart is a vast stone desert"; "Insolent swine! How dare you speak to me in that tone! Bring me my other shoes").

Furthermore, the play’s a comedy, but Ives wants it to say something more so he lards Thomas’s dialogue with heady theories about sexuality and gender relations. The academic tenor of these passages turns them toward lecture. These two writing weaknesses were also evident in Ives’s New Jerusalem, his drama about the heresy hearing of Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza in 17th-century Amsterdam: the playwright filled the play with discussions and debates about Spinoza’s extremely dense philosophies, turning the script into the scenario for a historical role-play rather than a drama. Venus in Fur, Ives’s comic fillip on acting and sex, then, turns into a demonstration of 19th-century gender psychology with comic interludes. I’m afraid that no amount of brilliant acting or perceptive directing can buck that up beyond, maybe, half an hour. Then it bores me and I want to move on.
[Manhattan Theatre Club has announced that Nina Arianda will return to the role of Vanda in David Ives’s Venus in Fur in a planned limited Broadway revival this fall. Walter Bobbie’s production will begin previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on October 13, with an opening night in November that hasn’t been made public. Arianda’s co-star for the Broadway premiere has not been announced.]

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