BOSTON – Ah, you think you know everything, Thomas Novachek. You’ve written a play adapting a 19th century sexual novel into a contemporary look at the battle of the sexes. You have a perfect fiancée. If only the world would catch up to you. You can’t find a director who appreciates your genius so you’re going to stage your adaptation of a 19th century play about sexual doimination yourself. You can’t find any actress in a whole day of auditioning; they’re all dimwits.
And now this. A Val Girl on steroids, albeit a very sexy Val Girl, has stormed into the audition room just as you were about to meet your honey for dinner, and begs you to let her audition even though she’s late. She’s dressed to kill, in dog collar, spiked heels and revealing black leather.
Depsite that, you want Vanda to leave, particularly when she starts opining about sexism, sado-masochism and other matters you think she doesn’t know anything about.
But she won’t leave. She has even brought a more formal dress and when she gets into character, as the main character of her play, you can’t believe it. You’re thunderstruck (almost literally, there’s a storm outside). She’s perfect.
Thus begins David Ives’ smart, funny, sensual comedy of sexual manners, “Venus in Fur,” in a good and steamy production at the Huntington Theatre Company (through Feb. 2). The play itself is something of a takeoff, or takedown, of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th-century book in which an aristocrat begs a woman to make him her slave. As Ives wrote in Broadway.com, “Sacher-Masoch put the M in S&M.”
The twist is that our contemporary playwright thinks he’s so ahead of the curve when it comes to what’s sexually what. He reluctantly agrees to read with Vanda and not only do things get steamier, but you realize she’s not the airhead he thought.
Ives also has things to say about contemporary sexual mores, though he puts them in the form of subliminal questions to the audience. Men, what do they want? What is sexism? Or S&M? Who’s behaving appropriately and who isn’t? The more things change the more they stay the same? Or are we overcivilized and therefore overthink all these matters in our PC era?
At the same time, the play and performances are so compelling that the greater temptation is to sit back and watch the sexy proceedings unfold. Andrea Syglowski is sensational as Vanda, as she travels back and forth between Val Girl and high-minded aristocrat. Chris Kipiniak takes a back set to her, but then again Cary Grant would too.
Which is part of the point. The playwright watches in disbelief as she not only transforms herself into the character, but turns their relationship into a mirror image of the one in the play, leaving him more and more in her power. (Roman Polanski's film version with his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric is awaiting US release.)
Ives and director Daniel Goldstein orchestrate the proceedings flawlessly. There’s an entertaining twist (which I saw coming, he boasted), but as clever as it is, I’m not sure it’s all to the good. It leaves you thinking about the twist, rather than all that’s preceded it. In the end, I think that’s what separates Ives’s psychosexual battlers from those in the plays of Edward Albee or Harold Pinter — they don’t cut as deep.
But Ives would probably see that as a compliment. Like Vanda, Ives seems impatient with the dictates of high art. I think he’s after something earthier and more direct. And if that’s what he’s after he scores a pretty direct hit in “Venus in Fur.”
From the Huntington: