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Theater Review: 'Venus in Fur' -- 3 stars

Hugh Dancy, left, and Nina Arianda in “Venus

Hugh Dancy, left, and Nina Arianda in “Venus in Fur." (Jason Bell) Credit: Hugh Dancy, left, and Nina Arianda in “Venus in Fur." (Jason Bell)

Venus in Fur
3 stars

"Venus in Fur," David Ives' dicey two-character 100-minute play inspired by the 1870 Russian erotic novel "Venus in Furs," starts out as a lighthearted backstage comedy. But by the end, after much role playing and power reversals, it has morphed into a battle of the sexes and a dark, sadomasochistic thriller.

In lesser hands, it might not work at all. But thanks to the stunning performance of Nina Arianda, solid support from her co-star Hugh Dancy and the spot-on direction of Walter Bobbie, "Venus in Fur" makes for an often captivating experience. There's no nudity, but this is one of the most genuinely sexual shows you've ever seen.

The play premiered Off-Broadway two seasons ago and instantly made a star out of Arianda, who had just recently graduated from NYU. She has since gone on to headline a Broadway revival of "Born Yesterday" and co-star in Woody Allen's "Paris at Midnight."

"Venus" begins with Thomas (Dancy), a young playwright-director, in a rehearsal studio. Alone and on his cell phone, he complains to his girlfriend about how none of the dozens of actresses he auditioned that day were fit for his new stage adaptation of "Venus in Furs."

Vanda (Arianda), another actress, unexpectedly arrives, wearing black leather under her raincoat. Although her name doesn't even appear on the audition sheet, Thomas agrees to let her try out.

Vanda claims to be only a bit familiar with the original book, referring to it as "S&M porn." She proceeds to read for the lead character - also named Vanda - who treats an aristocrat as her slave in an erotic game of desire and humiliation. As Thomas performs the play with Vanda, realities begin to shift and it's no longer clear who or what we are watching.

As a seemingly scatterbrained young actress, Arianda is a total riot. But by the same token, she is completely convincing as the mature, mysterious and controlling figure in Thomas' play. Dancy, who stresses his character's frustrations and uprightness, gets easily seduced - along with the audience itself. 

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