Depending on your taste for kink, "Venus in Fur," David Ives' twisty tale about a casting session between a smug playwright and an earthy actress trying out for the role of a well-born 19th century dominatrix, will be either a dream come true or a cautionary nightmare.
But the only fetish that's required to appreciate this Tony-nominated two-hander, which opened this weekend at South Coast Repertory in a well-tuned production directed by Casey Stangl, is an unbridled lust for theater. (An interest in erotic power games obviously wouldn't hurt, but harness ownership is absolutely not essential.)
The steamy fable begins at the end of a long day of casting that has left Thomas (Graham Hamilton) still without an actress for his adaptation of "Venus in Furs," the cult 1870 novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, in whose honor the word "masochism" was named.
Complaining in his arrogant way to his fiancée by phone about the dearth of "sexy-slash-articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls," Thomas is all prepared to go home in defeat when a stranger barges into the New York rehearsal studio. (The play's generic setting, endowed with intimate possibility by scenic designer Keith Mitchell and lighting designer Elizabeth Harper, has that isolated quality that always spells trouble in horror movies.)
Swathed in chaos from her unpleasant commute and drenched from the storm that is wreaking havoc on cellphone service, Vanda (Jaimi Paige) pleads with Thomas to let her read for the part despite having arrived after everyone has gone home. Spewing curses while apologizing, she sounds a bit like Cyndi Lauper might after getting her foot run over by a garbage truck.
Thomas wants nothing to do with this sexy yet coarse and seemingly mentally unstable woman, but she won't take no for an answer. Sharing the same name as the character, she believes the role is her destiny. (Her name is actually Wanda, though it's pronounced Vanda and is one of the play's "Twilight Zone"-like coincidences stirring menace and mystery.)
Dressed by costume designer David Kay Mickelsen as though he were a casual-wear mannequin at South Coast Plaza, Thomas is not impressed by the dog collar that Vanda is wearing (wrong period), and her insistence that the play is "S&M porn" vexes him.
Yet when she pulls out a vintage dress from her capacious bag that seems to contain an entire wardrobe and starts acting, a transformation occurs: This subway Venus becomes a poised and self-possessed young woman who very convincingly could be visiting a spa at the "eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire," a reference that just moments earlier had Vanda drawing blanks.
The two begin bringing the play to life, with Thomas taking on the role of Herr Kushemski. He's a dilettante poet with a weakness for fur that stems from a regal aunt who once beat him when he was a boy while he was stretched out on her black fox coat. Long trying to recapture this formative experience, Kushemski begins grooming Vanda into his all-powerful mistress, a part this demure character assumes with a vengeance.
Ives intricately entwines Thomas' budding relationship with Wanda with the developing intrigue of Kushemski and Vanda's unusual sexual bond. The play explores the slippery power dynamics between men and women, directors and actors and those desiring pain and those more than delighted to administer it.
Although this consummately theatrical play has been made into a surprisingly effective film by Roman Polanski (one of his best in years), the stage is a perfect medium for the investigation of this kind of fantasy role-playing. The dramatic material is slightly overstretched in places, but Ives creates the stunning effect of a hall of mirrors.
When "Venus in Fur" appeared on Broadway, the talk was largely about the virtuosic performance of Nina Arianda, who beat some heavy competition for the Tony that year. Stangl's production is weighed more equally between performers, with neither Hamilton nor Paige dominating the other.
Hamilton would be more convincing playing an actor than a writer-director — he's so manicured he looks as though he has a stylist in the wings evening out his facial hair. But he adroitly reveals the way sadism and masochism are two sides of the same damaged coin, as Freud theorized.
Paige overplays the comedy at the outset, but she quickly settles in, finding a balance between Vanda's heightened theatricality and her very real rage at male presumption and manipulation. This Vanda is a skillful seducer, but there are moments when her eyes flash with primal hatred, suggesting that this isn't a surrogate Venus but a divine instrument of female revenge.
The erotic gamesmanship is fascinating to track. But by far the most delicious pleasure of "Venus in Fur" comes from watching two actors dazzle us in a psychosexual pas de deux expertly choreographed for the dramatic stage.
'Venus in Fur'
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Oct. 26.
Tickets: Start at $22
Contact: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org