There are moments in the Mad Cow production of "Venus in Fur" when you can hear a pin drop in the intimate black box theater. It's as though the audience members are holding their breath, leaning forward a little in their seats, eyes glued to the battle unfolding before them.
Of course, this could be just a sign of society's preoccupation with sex. For the battle taking place on stage is a teasing seduction, a bending of wills and morals. Actors Tim Williams and Piper Patterson dance around each other, pushing each other's buttons figuratively, sometimes pushing each other literally.
And it's darn sexy.
Not sexy as in pornographic, but more "porn-ish," as Patterson's character says. You would see more flesh on parade at a Florida beach than you do in this play. But words have power, and ideas can be titillating. In combining sharp words with provocative ideas about sex and power — and adding a dollop of kink — playwright David Ives has created a hot time at the theater.
For Mad Cow's production, director Peg O'Keef plays down any foreshadowing of the twists and turns the story will take — although perhaps the dominatrix illustration on the playbill cover could be considered a spoiler. That means the audience can feel as off-balance as Williams' playwright character.
In a twisting play such as this, that off-kilter feeling boosts the audience's involvement as the surprise factor increases. But I would have liked to have seen a flash or two more of the characters' predilections early on, just a hint, to build the tension a little faster and make the conclusion a touch more satisfying.
The problem for the actors — and a reviewer — is to avoid giving away too much of the plot or characterizations. Suffice it to say, actress Vanda (Patterson) arrives late to audition for a new play about a well-off 19th-century man who confides his fascination with being dominated to a mysterious Greek woman. The actress convinces playwright Thomas (Williams) to read the script with her, but before long the line between reality and fantasy is blurring.
In New York, actress Nina Arianda was at the center of the play's buzz and won a Tony for her efforts. Here, O'Keef makes sure both her actors share the spotlight. They both succeed.
Tear your eyes away from the dog collar and the black, knee-high boots and watch how much they say with their smiles: Patterson guileless and calculating and triumphant, Williams nervous and compliant and smugly amused.
The humor gets its due — one funny running gag is Thomas's puzzled reaction to Vanda's proficiency with stage lighting — but it's the heat that sells this show.
• What: A
• Length: 90 minutes, no intermission
• When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Wednesday, Nov. 13; 3 p.m. Sundays except Nov. 10; through Nov. 17
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando
• Tickets: $35.75; discounts for students, seniors and military; $15 in advance on Nov. 13, pay what you wish at the door that day
• Call: 407-297-8788