S and Empathy: Studio’s Venus in Fur, reviewed, plus Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them

Christian Conn and Erica Sullivan whip it good. (Scott Suchman)

Venus in Fur
by David Ives
Directed by David Muse
At Studio Theatre to July 3

“I hate the audition process,” sighed provocateur-playwright David Mamet in a 2005 Los Angeles Times essay. “As an actor, I found it demeaning. As a writer and director, I find it damn near useless.”

It’s David Ives, not Mamet, whose fertile imagination begat Venus in Fur, a wickedly ingenious dark comedy that premiered in New York last year and has now arrived at the Studio Theatre in a new production that preserves its whip-smarts fully intact. But Mamet’s essay, “The Tyranny of the Audition,” could’ve contributed a perfectly descriptive moniker for Ives’s play had the latter not already borrowed the name of a scandalous 19th century German novella about a man who derives sexual pleasure from being abused. (If you already knew that the novella’s author’s name, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is the origin of the term masochism, go to the the head of the class. And continue down the hall the principal’s office; we’re totally calling your parents.)

Ives’s intelligent design is not a straightforward adaptation of the novella. He presents us instead with a youngish, famous-ish, not-yet-rich theater artiste who’s trying to cast his new adaptation thereof. After a long day’s fruitless search for an age-appropriate, articulate and sexy “actress who can actually pronounce the word ‘degradation’ without a tutor,” playwright-director Thomas is surprised when a woman barges into his shabby studio from out of the rain, all self-flagellating apologies for showing up hours late for an audition he can’t even find on the schedule. He tries to blow her off but you know she’s going to read for him anyway, and if any ladies or actors or lady actors or anybody is getting vapors hearing such a brazen male wish-fulfillment scenario recounted, just you wait. As Vanda pries off her rain poncho to reveal her patent leather (or vinyl?) bondage gear — just wait, I said! — the balance of power between omnipotent creator and helpless actor has already begun its hypnotic migration across the stage.

The casting couch (Scott Suchman)

Vanda might be a shipwreck of 21st century Manhattanite, but as a refined lady of “eighteen-hundred-whenever,” she’s something of a ringer. Persuading Thomas to let her audition continue well past the rain-pulped sides she glanced at on her way over, she casts him in the role of the pioneering deviant Severin. He insists the character bears no resemblance to himself, but once he tries on the suspiciously well-fitting Viennese frock coat Vanda has in her trash-bag of tricks, he’s in no hurry to take it off.

It’s difficult to recall another piece so precariously dependent not only upon the brilliance of its performers, but on their lockstep synchronicity. As playwright and player, respectively, Christian Conn and Erica Sullivan are equal partners in a shared performance, and it’s a knockout.

Vocally and physically, Vanda reveals unsuspected versatility and power at exactly the times of her choosing. She is simultaneously what Lou Reed (in the otherwise eponymous Velvet Underground song that made the “Furs” plural) called a “whiplash girl-child in the dark” and film critic Nathan Rabin, some decades later, coined a “manic pixie dreamgirl.” That’d be a quirky and carefree young woman who exists only to nurse some privileged dude through his luxuriously low-stakes crisis. It’s a fucked-out archetype that has sank many a self-impressed romantic dramedy, and to be fair, buoyed at least a handful of good ones. In Ives’s hands (and Sullivan’s everything) it’s a completely legit, even necessary characterization, for reasons that are no less gratifying for being fairly easy to guess.

Conn’s is a less showy role, but no less compelling a performance. His Thomas is so enlivened by Vanda’s presence that he’s only fitfully aware of the wounds as Vanda flays off his layers of vanity and delusion and aspiration. A generous performer, Conn shares with us Thomas’s delight in discovery — his expression when Vanda effortlessly adjusts the lighting scheme of his spartan rented room to something perfectly mood-appropriate is as fairly earned a laugh as when Vanda secures a dog collar around his throat and deigns to pay him a compliment: “Very fetching.”

Jeff Baker is a real gone daddy.

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them
by Christopher Durang
Directed by Ann Fraistat
At Capitol Hill Arts Workshop to June 11

Christopher Durang’s 2009 Why Torture Is Wrong, and The People Who Love Them is broadly satirical, expansively farcial, and increasingly self-referenial as it wears on. And wear it does. Director Ann Fraistat has mustered a capable and frequently wonderful cast, but doesn’t throw enough coal in the boiler to make this unwieldy thing run at its ideal speed. Even allowing for the production’s presumably modest budget, the set changes are clunky and protracted — simply turning the volume way, way up on the prerecorded songs that play over them would pump up the energy. As it is, we have too many opportunities to ponder how Durang’s justifiable rage over the boneheadedness and brutality of post-9/11 counterterrorism policy has resulted in a critique that often feels as cruel and careless as its targets. Call it the Gitmo approach to lampoonery: Durang doesn’t seem to mind if any innocents are caught up in his dragnet as long as he gets the bad guys, too.

Or maybe his point is that there are no innocents left in our country. Zamir, the hot-tempered, dubiously self-proclaimed Irishman to whom doe-eyed Felicity (a hardworking, affable Heather Whitpan) wakes up married in the opening scene, will become the victim of her father’s psychotic homeland-securing zeal, but that doesn’t make him a good guy. Mikael Johnson’s performance sure makes us like him, though — no small feat, given that he comes from the Rohyponol school of courtship. I suppose that still makes Zamir less of a sadist than Felicity’s paw, who is basically Jack Bauer — Keifer Sutherland’s hairshirted-but-ass-kicking-through-his-doubts terrorist-hunter from 24 — aged another 20 years and stripped of his infallibility. Jeff Baker is hysterical in the part, as is Steve Lebens as a blissed out man of the cloth who dabbles in porn films on the side. He’s actually the conscience of the piece.

I don’t know what that makes Charlotte Akin as Luella, Felicity’s Stepford mom, whom we never see without a pair of dishwashing gloves matched to her dress, which she matches to her mood. We also get Joe Thornhill as a torturer who spouts impressions of Looney Tunes characters while going about his grim duties. Thornhill is funny enough in the part that you can overlook what I presume to be Durang’s point about how we’re conditioned to laugh at violence from infancy. Thornhill pulls double-duty as the narrator, who has to do most of the heavy-lifting of actually ending the play once Durang has written himself into a corner.

These players and these characters are all so delightful you wish you could transplant them right out this thing into a more hospitable climate. Of course, you need a scalpel to perform surgery. Durang only brought his chainsaw.

These reviews appear in today’s
Washington City Paper.

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