David Ives' Tony-nominated 2010 sexual comedy, Venus in Fur, is to eroticism what Yasmina Reza's Art is to painting. Both are beguiling, erudite parlor games that keep fluttering around the issues they purport to investigate.
Venus in Fur, now at South Coast Repertory and the basis of Roman Polanski's recent movie of that name, has only two characters: a veteran New York playwright and first-time director, Thomas (Graham Hamilton); and an actress, Vanda (Jaimi Paige), auditioning for Thomas, alone in a rehearsal room, for a production of his latest work. That would be an adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — "Masoch" being the root of the oft-used term masochism. Masoch's book is a series of conversations about power and surrendering it sexually and spiritually, centered on a needy, melancholic fellow named Severin, who is also the central character in Thomas' play-within-Ives' play.
When Vanda wanders in for her audition, late (of course), Thomas is on the phone to his fiancée, bemoaning the superficiality and rampant stupidity of the actresses he's seen so far. It's no stretch to infer that his smug contempt extends from actresses to women in general. Hamilton portrays a buff, manicured playwright, as male playwrights go, though if he were an unprepossessing nerd, it's doubtful that the comeuppance he's about to experience would be any less satisfying or predictable.
The pair, ostensibly playing their respective roles in the audition that Thomas is initially so reluctant to grant her, engages in a dance of ever-shifting roles. Paige's Vanda — who doubles as Thomas/Masoch's Wanda and Venus — is so irrepressibly mercurial, it's hard to determine whether she's a New York thespian, or from Thomas' fevered imagination, or from the planet Venus.
When he questions her choice to arrive in a leather collar, de rigueur for S&M roleplay, she shrugs it off as a leftover item from her days as a prostitute — "Just kidding," she shoots back to the gobsmacked Thomas. But when she is kidding, or playing, about anything at all, becomes increasingly difficult for either Thomas or for the audience to determine. And these slippery edges between cursing New York City street kid and imperious Austro-Hungarian dominatrix, which Paige traverses so effortlessly and convincingly under Casey Stangl's direction, are this production's centerpiece. Vanda is the smart woman who plays dumb, the power broker who plays powerless, the coy femme fatale who burns with a seething desire for revenge. She knows Thomas, his peccadillos — and those of his fiancée — so well that the question of who is she is enough to sustain this production.
Less compelling are the play's somewhat recycled ruminations on masters and slaves, and the theatrical reversal of those roles in sexual fantasy, which Jean Genet handled with far greater depth and symbolism in The Balcony almost 60 years ago.
Misogyny lies at the heart of all sado-masochism, Ives' play implies. Even when the misogynist licks the boots of his dominatrix, declaring that to be the very purpose of his existence, he will later blame her for it, Vanda argues. Hatred resides at the heart of love. If it were really that simple?...
The West Coast premiere of Brian C. Petti's Banshee at Theatre of NOTE looks like an old play — it's an Irish fable, but set in New York, in 1981. Sad sack Junior (Bill Voorhees), now 40, unemployed and recovering from a nervous breakdown, lives with his Irish mother, Kit (Lynn Odell). Junior's cop brother, Neil (Joe Mahon), gets him a new job on the docks, and introduces him to a lonely, beautiful divorcée-with-child, Cara (Alysha Brady), who, like his mum, speaks in Celtic brogue.
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Structured as a series of cinematic scenes, the play hones in on the rivalry between Kit and Cara over the privilege of caring for the emotionally wobbly Junior. Kit comes up with a dream in which the ghost of Junior's father warned her of a soul-sucking Banshee, whom Kit insists is Cara. ("Who else could it be?" Uhm, checked the mirror lately?)
How vulnerable is Junior to his mother's machinations? It's a bit like The Glass Menagerie with actual nightmares. This is no play of ideas, but it's an amazing, sentimental thrill ride under James R. Carey's spot-on direction of this terrific ensemble. And Lydell's performance is a monument to the matriarch-playing-martyr. There's also a lovely cameo by Norm Johnson as a taunting dock driver.
VENUS IN FUR | By David Ives | South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa | Tue.-Sun., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; through Oct. 26 | (714) 708-5555 | scr.org
BANSHEE | By Brian C. Petti | Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 1 | (323) 856-8611 | theatreofnote.com