photo: Joan Marcus
David Ives' absorbing, consistently entertaining one-act isn't an adaptation of the infamous novel of erotic masochism "Venus In Furs". Instead, it centers on the power dynamic between a playwright/director (Wes Bentley) who's adapted the novel and the mysterious actress (Nina Arianda) he auditions to star in it. The framing conceit is a brilliant stroke - it allows the contemporary characters to both play out an S&M relationship that echoes the one in the book, while also challenging and commenting on it. The first third of the play is disarmingly funny: the actress storms in late to the audition seeming a clueless jumble of neurotic trivialities, just the kind of dime-a-dozen girl the playwright/director has been seeing and complaining about all day. When it's time to get to work she's a different person: intense, sensuous, unflinchingly present. The contrast results in a lot of laughs until we learn enough about the character to be actively suspicious and on alert. Bentley has the less showy role and does well with it - he wisely underplays and lets the character's hidden pathology rise to the surface incrementally, believably. Arianda's rich, many-layered performance is the kind of debut that makes your jaw drop. You watch her, marveling at her navigation of the role's changing moods and deepening colors, and think of dozens upon dozens of roles you want to see her play, everything from The Owl And The Pussycat to The Sea Gull. She's nothing short of astonishing.