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Venus in Fur

Adriano Gatto and Candice Kogut.

With so many small professional theaters in Buffalo, we are increasingly able to see the most recent hits from New York on our stages. The current season brings us an avalanche of product, from Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park to Broadway rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Venus in Fur is the most recent play by David Ives, best known for his clever 1994 comedy, All in the Timing.

In this play, Thomas, a vainglorious director is frustrated at the poor quality of the actresses he has been auditioning for his stage adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs—the very book that inspired the term masochism, after the name of its author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Thomas has just been railing against fate and the frailty of women when, punctuated by a clap of thunder, actress Vanda Jordan bursts through the door.

Vanda is the embodiment of Thomas’s every complaint—disheveled, needy, and crude. Nonetheless, she manages to woo him into auditioning her. Before the evening is over, life imitates fiction and the two are enacting the sado-masochistic relationship of the play for real.

Venus in Fur is on the schedules of more theaters across the country this season than any play other than A Christmas Carol. No wonder. In addition to titillating subject matter, the play requires just two actors and a single set.

In Buffalo, the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park has answered the call. The production stars Adriano Gatto and Candice Kogut, under the direction of Robert Waterhouse. The remarkably handsome set is by Dyan Burlingame.

When a play has enjoyed numerous productions across the country, by the time it lands in Buffalo, I am often very familiar with the script. That is true in this case.

Venus in Fur turns on the ambiguity of the Vanda character. Who is she? Why does she have such astonishing insight into the play and (more peculiarly) into the director’s life? Is she a stalker? Is she, perhaps, a goddess in disguise?

The play depends upon an actress of impressive versatility and range who can affect a series of stunning reversals. This is the role that made Nina Arianda a star. Arianda created the role off-Broadway, played it on Broadway, and won a Tony award. Excitement about her was so powerful that between these productions, she was cast on Broadway in another iconic duckling-to-swan role, Billie Dawn in Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday. At every step, the response was ecstatic.

What we get here is a faithful reading of the play, but without the heated intensity of a seduction, and without the sense of wonder in the virtuosity of performance.

Gatto and Kogut are talented, capable, and even attractive performers. That is not the issue. The question is more a matter of calibration.

Vanda first astounds Thomas by opening his script, departing from her usual vulgar speaking voice, and speaking in the perfect rounded tones of a refined Mid-Atlantic stage accent—what she calls a “phony trans-Atlantic” accent. Her transformation from actress to character is total and immediate. When I have previously seen this play, this simple reversal inspired gasps of awe and admiration from the audience—and from Thomas.

By contrast, here the moment is played as if a common girl was simply putting on a fancy voice. This flower girl never quite metamorphoses into a shop girl, much less a princess or a goddess. Dominatrix, yes. Goddess, not quite.

At every turn, potentially bold turns of skill are handled casually: the comic tour de force of Vanda putting on a period dress or rummaging through her voluminous bag for various props and costume pieces; the smoldering passion between Vanda and Thomas as she seduces him into telling his girlfriend that he won’t be coming home tonight, while gently tugging on the dog collar she’s placed around his neck.

There is a palpable difference between sado-masochistic seduction and mere bullying. Vanda needs to entice Thomas.

In a world in which actors do not receive much vocal training, any sense of virtuosity is further diminished by the actor’s sibilant “s” and a tendency to punctuate her thoughts with a smacking sound made with a click of her tongue against her teeth.

I have enjoyed Ms. Kogut’s skillful performances very much in the past. She is a statuesque actress with a commanding stage presence and a fine sense of comedy. Without being present at rehearsals, it is not possible to know how this particular performance was shaped.

For his part, Mr. Gatto is left to make continuity without the necessary stimulus. His puppy dog yearning is endearing, but not quite smoking.

Without subtlety of interpretation, the proceedings seemed far more repetitive than I had remembered. Still, the script is strong and will sustain an evening’s entertainment without intermission. The strength of David Ives’ writing is undeniable.