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Review of ‘Venus in Fur’ at Studio Theatre

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“Who are you, Vanda Jordan?” the intrigued stage director asks of the bewitching auditioner in David Ives’s invigoratingly playful comedy “Venus in Fur.” And, indeed, this becomes the evening’s operative question, for in the enchanting person of Erica Sullivan, Vanda turns the simple act of role-playing into a seductive contest with wildly carnal implications.

Director David Muse’s rollicking Studio Theatre production pits Sullivan’s surprisingly resourceful Vanda against the splendid Christian Conn’s sexually submissive Thomas Novachek, adapter and director of the play in which Vanda so desperately wants to be cast. Desire and power, and how they are wielded in rehearsal rooms as well as bedrooms, give this frisky exercise its metier, which Ives exploits in multiply tangy ways.

Ives is one of the cleverest playwrights around, as he has demonstrated of late in Washington with the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Liar,” his pun-crazed adaptation of Corneille, and Theater J’s “New Jerusalem,” a play that treated the life of the philosopher Spinoza with such absorbing sophistication that the company is reprising its production next season. His grasp of the comedic ballast needed to keep an audience floating through potentially dense material is his keenest gift, a facility on display once again in “Venus in Fur” — even if this new play ultimately gives itself away too cutely.

Because Ives explores other gleeful notions — especially concerning the mysteries of an actor’s transformation — “Venus in Fur” never diverges too harmfully from its lively premise. It’s not a major work, just a smart scoopful of fun, a delectably compressed actors’ pas-de-deux of a sort for which ambitious actors might undergo a root canal — twice. By virtue of her success as Vanda in the play’s premiere off-Broadway, for instance, actress Nina Arianda proceeded to the new Broadway revival of “Born Yesterday,” for which she is Tony-nominated.

The part, one hopes, will yield fruitful results for Sullivan as well: It’s sure-fire, particularly in the play’s early movements, after Vanda arrives in the drab, florescent-lighted room where Thomas has been holding disappointing auditions all day. He’s seeking to cast the lead in his play, also called “Venus in Fur,” which he’s adapted from a racy 19th-century Austrian novella, “Venus in Furs,” about a man with a fetish for being dominated by women.

Which is why Sullivan’s Vanda — sounding like the ditsy type for whom waiting tables might be too complicated — shows up (late) for her audition in leather bustier and dog collar. The ensuing session grows increasingly intense: Thomas becomes ever more infatuated with Vanda, who’s reading for a character who also happens to be named Vanda. Hmm. The play’s most dependably funny interludes are those in which Sullivan segues from Vanda the actress to Vanda the temptress and back again; she’s a riff on Eliza in “Pygmalion,” a woman whose intelligence emerges as her vowels grow rounder.

The gamesmanship unfolds simultaneously, in two realities: Thomas and Vanda as antagonists in Thomas’s play; and Thomas and Vanda, contemporary director and actress. The control that Thomas the director seeks to maintain over actress Vanda in the audition is a counterpoint to what occurs in the 1870 play-within-a-play, set at a spa in Carpathia: Thomas’s character craves nothing so much as total powerlessness. He pleads with the character of Vanda to make him her slave.

In its dissection of the motives of the playwright-adapter — a role Ives himself has played often in real life — “Venus in Fur” also toys self-consciously with the idea that Thomas chose the novella because he and the character are of the same passionate predilections. (Aren’t all acts of creation informed by the libido?) The play suggests, too, that male writers need to be called to account for the spurious generalizations they’ve spread about women down through the ages. Or perhaps “Venus in Fur” is simply one man’s Freudian nightmare.

Ives drops fairly obvious hints about where this muscularly paced, 90-minute piece is headed, which weakens the potential wallop at the end. One wishes he hadn’t been quite so scrupulous in dotting every i. Still, the performances are so gratifyingly well matched — Conn, with his Colin Firth-y charm, vs. the flirtatiously all-American Sullivan — that the heat melts away any residual resistance.

Muse began his first season as Studio’s artistic director by staging “Circle Mirror Transformation,” a wise comedy set in a community-center acting class. His directorial bookend for the season is another funny play about acting: “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism,” Vanda says at one point. “I’m in the theater.” With Muse confidently at the helm on evenings like this one, we’re all buckled in happily for the pain and the pleasure.

Venus in Fur

by David Ives. Directed by David Muse. Set, Blythe R.D. Quinlan; lighting, Michael Lincoln; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; dialects, Gary Logan. About 90 minutes. Through July 3 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.

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