There’s a sexy story within a sexy story in David Ives’ two-person play “Venus in Fur,” which was a hit on Broadway in 2011 and is now at Actor’s Express through October 6. Beleaguered but feisty young actress Vanda (Veronika Duerr) arrives to audition for hard-nosed playwright and director Thomas (Adam Fristoe). And though she’s late, she cajoles him into letting her read for the lead role in his new play, an adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs, about the sexual and psychological nuances of a sadomasochistic relationship, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name we get the word “masochism.” Vanda takes on the role with a conviction and fittingness that stuns Thomas, and he’s drawn in to play along, even as he gets hung up on the mystery of her origins. After a day full of dud auditions, she has seemingly come out of nowhere and is beyond perfect for the role.
Duerr’s performance is a tour de force. Vanda is a role that requires a bit of everything from an actress, and occasionally everything at once. Whoever takes on the part has to be meek, then domineering; clumsily clueless, then knowingly sophisticated; crass, then genuinely elegant and alluring, often quickly switching between the extremes or even blending several shades at once. All of this Duerr handles with an irresistible intensity and focus. Fristoe masterfully plays the moderately doltish everyman pulled into her powerful wake, making a convincing journey from short-tempered, domineering director to simpering, servile wimp.
Ives skillfully weaves the two stories and their motifs together, though sometimes the script’s devices can feel generic: the audition room, the short-tempered director, the flustered but plucky young actress, the questions about a mysterious character’s origins. It all even takes place on a “dark and stormy night,” with some dramatically timed thunder and lightning. And some of the humor edges dangerously close to Benny Hill territory. The auditioning actress has on some vintage lingerie — garters, black bustier, the whole bit — which she reveals with an unabashedly businesslike resoluteness, earning laughs.
The action proceeds in fits and starts. Indeed, “Venus in Fur” could be said to be about disruption, so it’s all good. The characters’ objections, exceptions, defenses, dissembling and second thoughts about what they’re enacting are as much the subject as anything else. I found scenes from the novel to be the most interesting and sexiest onstage, but both the novel and Ives’ script require that we find lots and lots of sexual and psychological heat in the fantasy roles of masochist and sadist. There’s some, sure, but in the end, it just may not be everyone’s thunderclap.
Moreover, moments of quiet, slowness and intimacy, in which the audience can sense and contemplate the changes in power dynamics, are actually pretty rare. Elements of suspense and mystery seem crucial to the play, crucial to a sense of sexiness and the buildup of unnerving, nearly supernatural creepiness that should lie at its heart, but things stay pretty broad and noisy much of the time.
But “Venus in Fur” achieves no small glory in Vanda’s transcendent fulfillment and dismantling of the master-slave relationship that Thomas has conceived and longed for. In spite of some small flaws, it’s a compelling comedy of sexual mores, a pinwheel-eyed puzzle of a play about the eternal and irresolvable struggles between men and women that swirl around sex and power.