The set-up: Kinky sex comes to the Alley via David Ives's provocatively funny play, Venus in Fur (2010), which won its leading actress, Nina Arianda, a Tony Award ® for Best Actress when the off-Broadway production sashayed onto the Great White Way in 2011. Mr. Ives was nominated for Best Play, but lost to Bruce Norris and his Clybourne Park, which the Alley produced last season in a spirited regional premiere. Had the Alley's leading lady, Nicole Rodenburg, been in the Broadway show, I don't see how she wouldn't have picked up that prestigious award. She is divine. Dangerous, crafty, but always divine. Her Vanda seduces us with effortless style, just as she does to hapless, male chauvinist Thomas (Michael Bakkensen, so impressive as pioneering dentist Horace Wells in the less-than-impressive Ether Dome, an Alley world premiere bio-play in 2011.)
The execution: Vanda arrives with a thunderclap. Appears really. Almost materializes - the last one in a long line of actresses that harried director/writer Thomas is auditioning for the role of aristocratic Vanda in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 classic tale of female sexual domination and male humiliation, Venus in Furs. He's tired and irritable, spewing his frustration at the paltry female talent he's had to endure all day. They're so stupid, he rants on the phone to his financée in a wicked impression of a Valley Girl; they all sound like a six-year-old on helium. There are no women out there, he laments when...BOOM..."Vanda" Jordan blows in, dropping her bags, wet script, and F-bombs all over the rehearsal studio.
She's everything he's been whining about: ditsy, vapid, artsy-fartsy, and a little mad. She's three hours late, something about a guy copping a feel on the subway, but her name's not on his list. Thomas has run out of patience, but in a series of comic encounters, including a priceless battle with her raincoat sleeve, Vanda cajoles and wheedles a reading of the first three pages of the script. Against his wishes, she quickly drops her everyday wear to reveal a Victoria Secret ensemble of leather skirt, black stockings, and bustiere. Later she pulls from her overstuffed bag a long lace dress that she asks Thomas to zip up in the back. It's the first moment of sexual frisson. Although it passes in a flash, it leaves an indelible impression. She flicks off the overhead florescent lights, and the room glows with amber. So does she.
Like the crack from a whip, she lowers her voice into a Dietrich purr, and goofy Vanda instantly becomes woman-of-the-world Vanda, the character from his play. She knows all the lines letter perfect, she moves with grace, she drips sophistication, she has the character down to her arched fingertips. Her transformation takes Thomas - and us - by complete surprise. Delightfully so.
Thomas reads the part of Severin, the shiftless rich hedonist who wants to be dominated. Slyly, with guile and an actor's finesse, Vanda subtly directs her director. Comically switching back into her modern airhead mode with a nasal "Get into it," she prods him to dig deeper into his role. He doesn't know how to respond to this strange creature, but gradually he begins to submit to her will, tentative at first but then glad, as the female character he's created on the page stands in front of him, more vivid than he could have ever imagined. This is the turn-on he's been waiting for. Thomas, like Severin a century earlier, falls hard under her spell.
David Ives's provocative play is not your father's sex comedy, although it has a lot of Feydeau farce in it. The Frenchman's slamming doors become thunder; his mistaken identities morph into witty gender politics; his hapless husbands are submissive in a much more kinky way; his tricky wise wives transform into vengeful goddesses. At 90 minutes, the dark sex comedy runs out of steam, or steamy situations, for we know where these boots are walking, but the multiple surprises that twine through the play are nonetheless piquant - there's a delightfully insightful scene on the divan, where Thomas, like a patient of Freud's, is brought low by Vanda's prescient knowledge of his bland financée and their bland life together.
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Bakkensen makes a solid male foil to Vanda's exotic female. Blustery and pig-headed, he soon succumbs to the darkness within him, not knowing exactly how or why. But, really, who could resist Rodenburg? Her timing is exquisite; her inflections, whether Austro-Hungarian or whacked-out street profanity, are spot-on; and she looks great wearing those boots. Both of them make submission and humiliation look as pretty as an ad from the Erotic Cabaret Boutique.
The physical production seduces, as well. Takeshi Kata's evocative set is simple but brilliantly detailed with overhead lights, radiators placed under grimy factory windows, and that paisley-print divan upon which all types of physical and psychic seduction occur. Tricia Barsamian's costumes are a fetishist's dream - those patent leather stiletto boots are meant for midnight; while Matthew Richards's lighting and Matt Starritt's ominous thunder add their own surprises to Ives's fractured fairy tale. Director Brandon Weinbrenner, the Alley's resident assistant director, moves into the big leagues with this debut. He gives Ives a spiky, sensuous rhythm that entices us into the story and keeps us there, even when Ives drags his heels.
The verdict: Vanda knows way too much for any ordinary actress, so who is this vixen in dog collar and garter belts? Neither Thomas nor we find out definitively at the end, but we have a pretty good guess. We leave the poor director/author tied to a column by one of Vanda's black stockings, calling out her name in supplication, fear, and, no doubt, desire. If you like your pain with a lot of pleasure, then Venus in Fur will have you on your knees -- in thanks to the Alley for this bright and snappy comedy of sexual mis-manners.
David Ives's glittery take on S&M wears its knee boots proudly through November 10 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $50-$65.