Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ nearly gets kinky

Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

Hoo-boy! It’s not just me. It’s the entire Suzanne Roberts Theatre, where the Philadelphia Theatre Company has opened David Ives’ “Venus in Fur.”

Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

Hoo-boy! It’s not just me. It’s the entire Suzanne Roberts Theatre, where the Philadelphia Theatre Company has opened David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” an examination of who dominates and who is submissive, who can use the power of sex and who cannot, and how all those roles switch. And speaking of switches, yes! The play is as suggestively kinky as you can get without being actually kinky, and the production smoothly ramps up the intensity and heat as it sizzles through 90 intermissionless minutes. 

The storyline is simple: A fetching, irrepressible young woman arrives late for an audition, then convinces the playwright — the only person remaining in a ramshackle rented room (Jason Simms’ set) — to let her read for a part. He’s adapted an erotic 19th-century love-twist novel about sexual domination, gender politics, masochism, punishment and power called “Venus in Furs.” (The novel is real, a controversial 1870 work by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.)

As the play unfolds, it becomes harder to tell what this woman knows and what she fakes, and whether truth plays a meaningful part in what she says. She gets the playwright to read his steamy script with her, and the audition moves back and forth from the script to their personal patter. The fiction they enact begins to reflect the dynamic between these two people who’ve just met.

The two-person “Venus in Fur” can work on stage only with a tour-de-force from its female player, and this production gets one from Jenni Putney, an actress who does much of her work in California and is perfectly cast here. She must be – and is – a curvy and leather-swathed package of emotions that range from sultry to bitchy, from dumb to foxy.

People in the audience who saw “Venus in Fur” when it was a sensation Off-Broadway two seasons back, then on Broadway last year, will inevitably compare Putney to Nina Arianda, who won a Tony Award for her performance. It’s an understandable notion, if questionable; each woman creates the role in her own vision and with the director, and both interpretations work. Here’s my take: Arianda was more pouty and her character seemed younger with a curious innocence that slowly evaporated; Putney heightens the woman’s mystery and is more worldly, and more extravagantly emotional.

Putney’s foil here – or maybe her prey – is Mark Alhadeff, who was a Broadway understudy for Hugh Dancy in the role. Alhadeff carries his weight easily with Putney. He’s not exactly vulnerable, but he creates a character who harbors some sort of hidden agenda with his play – possibly he wants to be dominated, like the male character he writes.

It’s all very saucy — and very funny, funnier under Kip Fagan’s direction than I remember it on Broadway, though no less erotic. It’s also a tribute to the versatility of Ives, its creator, who wrote the comic sketch-play called “All in the Timing”; the historical and idea-packed drama called “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza,” recently done twice by Lantern Theater; the script to the Broadway musical of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” and the working version of Mark Twain’s long-lost and only play, “Is He Dead?”

Yes, it’s been a cold spring, and yes, we’re finally feeling summer. But inside the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, the air-conditioning bill is already pretty high, I bet.

“Venus in Fur,” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, through June 23. www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or 215-985-0420.

 

 

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