For what it’s worth: Jenni Putney, the terrific actress playing Vanda in the George Street Playhouse (in association with Philadelphia Theater Company) production of “Venus in Fur,” gets to wear a pair of hip-length patent leather kinky boots that compare favorably as an eye opener with any that are being worn in the current Broadway hit musical “Kinky Boots.” That Putney, who is making her George Street Playhouse debut, gives an eye opening, comically seductive performance as the perversely industrious actress who vigorously conspires to get a role in an off-Broadway play provides most of the fun in a play whose point and purpose continue to confound me.
David Ives’ 2010 play in which ambition, showbiz, and S &M are important elements created quite a stir when it first opened off-Broadway. It catapulted Nina Arianda, who played Vanda, to stardom. “Venus in Fur” was subsequently and successfully moved to Broadway where it was enjoyed by as many as by those who were also baffled by it.
After seeing it first off and then on Broadway and now in a fine production directed by Kip Fagan (currently being praised for his direction of Jesse Eisenberg’s “The Revisionist” that will also be moved to Broadway), I am prepared to say that it is probably not a good idea to seek out any meaning in its mercurial posturing, rather simply enjoy it as a skillfully written and delectably performed diversion.
The other character is Thomas, the playwright who is also going to direct his own play. Not as tall or as voluptuous as his co-star, he is excellently played by Mark Alhadeff (he was the understudy in the Broadway production) and, as Thomas, holds on to his manhood and his manners as best as he can under the circumstances afforded him. Getting back to the S&M I alluded to above, the plot centers around the skillfully set up, exactingly calculated machinations of a willful actress who is auditioning for a role in a play that Thomas has adapted from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic erotic 1870 novel.
During the course of the play, Thomas and Vanda (who just happens to have the same name as the character in the play/novel) assume their respective roles within the play, both affixed with affected transcontinental accents. They proceed with the reading of the text even as they retreat on occasion to bait and challenge each other in regard to their character’s intentions and motivations. We begin to sense the inherent danger in their testy but also tantalizing duet, mainly because we suspect that Vanda may have a mission that goes beyond simply getting hired. I don’t want to spoil the initial set-up as it is very funny, and is a fine example of Ives’s gift for quirky, skewed situation comedies. His first big hit “All in the Timing” was recently successfully revived Off Broadway.
Some degree of tension and apprehension is visible in Thomas as he begins to realize that he is helpless, even powerless to resist the pull and tug underway in the light of Vanda’s determination to make him understand the psycho-sexual implications of his own play. Some of these digressions seem incredulously facile, but they do provoke laughter. The play takes Thomas and Vanda on a course of reactionary action that is probably meant to be erotic, but it is often simply erratic, even a bit tiresome.
Some may find some titillation in the more aggressively interpolated sexual interplay between the increasingly assertive Vanda and the incrementally ensnared Thomas. In between, there is humor to be found in the short, snappy phone conversations they each have with their presumed lovers outside the credibly evoked (by designer Jason Simms) rehearsal studio. At the end you may find yourself saying asking “huh,” rather than saying “aha.” But in between there are enough “uh, ohs” to keep you involved.
Venus in Fur, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Playhouse, New Brunswick, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m,, and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Through Saturday, May 18. $28-$67. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.