VENUS IN FUR
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Review - Other Desert Cities & Venus in Fur

The funny thing about the truth is that it can be totally subjective and personal stories rarely involve just one person. So, in Jon Robin Baitz's darkly comic drama, Other Desert Cities, when a depression-plagued writer tries curing the block following the success of her freshman effort with a book describing her view of her celebrity family's past tragedy, the holiday conversation crackles like a Yule log.

The play is set in the Palm Springs home of retired action movie star Lyman Wyeth (Stacy Keach) and his former screenwriter wife, Polly (Stockard Channing); a pair of Ron-and-Nancy Hollywood Republicans who, when not attending fund-raisers and formals, reside comfortably in a home so blandly furnished that even the Christmas tree ornaments are unobtrusive. (Great work by set designer John Lee Beatty in coming up with a look that's contemporary, elegant and dull.)

Their youngest son, Trip (Thomas Sadoski), is a sharp and intelligent porn addict who produces an admittedly mindless television show featuring a retired judge settling small claims cases ("Funny is all we have left."). Middle child Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), who is about as closed-mindedly liberal as her parents are closed-mindedly conservative, comes to visit with boxes filled with the final draft of her account of the life and death of her older brother; a telling that she feels reflects honestly, though not kindly, on her parents. Though publication is scheduled for months away, there's a fast approaching deadline for an excerpt to appear in The New Yorker, and Brooke wants mom and dad's approval... now.

Naturally, Brooke, nor anyone else, knows everything about the circumstances, which are revealed through Baitz's crisp and tangy dialogue. Under Joe Mantello's brisk direction, Stockard Channing is especially memorable as the staunch and elegant woman continually protecting her man's back while popping off biting observations and casual prejudices. Judith Light matches her as Polly's dry-witted recovering alcoholic sister, Silda, a one-time writing partner who resents her sibling's defection from her one-time left-wing values.

The conflict would be a more even match if Griffiths wasn't giving such a stilted and "actorly" performance; the kind that makes it seem like she's saying every line within quotation marks, but Sadosky adds to his impressive list of stage performances by smoothly revealing how Trip isn't as shallow as Brooke believes him to be and Keach anchors the evening as a man trying to hold on to his unflappably masculine movie image in his role as patriarch.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Judith Light and Stockard Channing; Bottom: Rachel Griffiths and Thomas Sadoski.

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I was definitely in the minority last season when I found David Ives' power-playing Off-Broadway two-hander, Venus in Fur, to be a bit of a bore. I'm sure there will be those who find at least some mild titillation from his take on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 erotic novella, Venus in Furs, but its Manhattan Theatre Club Broadway transfer, which has somehow added an extra fifteen minutes to its former hour-and-a-half length, still had me wishing for a safe word to make it all stop.

The premise certainly has potential for some thrilling, sadomasochistic fun. The piece opens in a contemporary rehearsal studio where playwright Thomas (Hugh Dancy), who is taking his first crack at directing, is on the phone with his fiancée for one of those exposition-packed calls that are so cute in 1920s drawing room comedies but seem rather forced here. His latest work is an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's controversial story of a man who takes pleasure in being degraded and physically dominated by the lady he adores and he's just spent a frustrating day auditioning women incapable of playing his leading role, which requires a combination of youth, beauty and sexual worldliness. Before the one-sided conversation is over we know the guy harbors a pretty low opinion of women in general and believes that every director he encounters is an incompetent who cannot understand his work.

Enter Vanda (Nina Arianda), hours late for an audition she wasn't even scheduled for, displaying the worst aspects of scatter-brained ditziness that Thomas just finished describing. She is so out there - talking fast and incessantly, saying the wrong things, dressed too overtly sexy for the occasion - that it's obvious that as soon as she starts reading from the script she'll suddenly transform herself into exactly what the guy is looking for, since there'd be no play if she didn't.

The thing is, though, that she isn't really reading from the script. She has it memorized, despite her claim that she just glanced over it on the subway. And she happened to show up at the audition with bags full of costumes just right for her and for Thomas, who reads the play with her. The line between real life and erotic fiction blurs as the relationship between the characters becomes the relationship between actress and director and the actual identity of this mysterious thespian becomes more apparent.

But while the plot has its high points, Ives' text is repetitious and lacking in any kind of empathy. Scenes are overwritten and moments are telegraphed through a predictable path, scratching the surface of Thomas and Vanda's episode but barely giving it a pulse. Director Walter Bobbie understandably can't seem to extract any sense of danger or mystery from the piece, so much of it is played for laughs that don't land.

Dancy is certainly a big improvement over the actor who playEd Thomas Off-Broadway, but his skills only emphasize how underwritten the character is. Arianda, a ball of energy, frequently overplays the comic aspects of her role and her diction often gets mushy whenever Vonda gets excited or starts to ramble. But she's spot-on when quickly switching from her role as the actress to the role that her character portrays, to the point where it can be intriguingly unclear who exactly is speaking.

Venus in Fur premiered at Classic Stage Company, where David Ives and Walter Bobbie have worked together on the far superior New Jerusalem and the wonderful The School For Lies. A transfer of either of those productions would have been a far sexier move for Broadway.

Photos of Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy by Joan Marcus.

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"The truest expression of a people is in its dances and its music. Bodies never lie."

-- Agnes De Mille

The grosses are out for the week ending 11/13/2011 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: SEMINAR (14.8%), MARY POPPINS (13.1%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (10.8%), CHINGLISH (10.5%), MEMPHIS (8.8%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (8.5%), CHICAGO (8.2%), MAMMA MIA! (8.1%), VENUS IN FUR (7.5%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (6.6%), ANYTHING GOES (5.6%), Hugh Jackman, BACK ON BROADWAY (5.5%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (4.7%), PRIVATE LIVES (4.6%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (4.0%), ROCK OF AGES (3.7%), MAN AND BOY (3.5%), THE MOUNTAINTOP (3.2%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (3.2%), JERSEY BOYS (3.2%), BONNIE AND CLYDE (2.7%), GODSPELL (2.4%), WAR HORSE (1.6%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (1.3%), WICKED (1.1%),

Down for the week was: RELATIVELY SPEAKING (-12.2%), FOLLIES (-3.3%), SISTER ACT (-1.8%),

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