A carefully constructed battle of the sexes plays out in crisp, two-part disharmony in David Ives’ comedy “Venus in Fur,” a 2012 Tony nominee now at American Conservatory Theater.
A young actress, Vanda (Brenda Meaney), arrives belatedly to audition for “Venus in Fur,” to be directed by the playwright, Thomas (Henry Clarke).
Actually, Thomas’ adapted play is from a novel, “Venus in Furs” (that final “s” is in the novel’s title), published in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Eastern European writer whose name gave us the word masochism.
Von Sacher-Masoch’s novel depicts the relationship between the sexually submissive Severin — based at least partly on von Sacher-Masoch himself — and Vanda, the beautiful woman who enslaves him at his behest. She is the Aphrodite of Severin’s dreams, draped in the soft fur that he has fetishized ever since, as a boy, he was whipped, thrillingly, by a cruel aunt as he huddled in her fur coat.
The real-life Vanda, first presented as a bimbo, begs Thomas to read with her for the role after hours, and the reluctant director agrees.
From that point on, the paradigm shifts as actress Vanda uncannily inhabits both 19th-century Vanda and the dominatrix’s avatar, the goddess of love. She and Thomas soon morph thoroughly into their characters, or so it seems. But Vanda is a trickster, and fiction and reality begin to merge.
Ives is using not-unfamiliar theatrical tropes (weaving in and out of a play-within-a-play with rising stakes and a mashup of truth and lies, the eventual role-switcheroo, the woman who turns out to be much more than she seems) to explore modern-day, post-feminist power dynamics with the added titillation of a sadomasochistic context, and with the contrast of late-19th-century attitudes toward women and sex.
It’s a delicious idea, but it ultimately feels too contrived to be revelatory, and the coy role-playing becomes monotonous. Nor do the actors, under Casey Stangl’s direction, seem authentic at the times when they should.
Clarke’s Thomas, although fairly bland, feels almost as unreal as his Severin. And as Vanda, Meaney shows impressively wide range but is so off-puttingly broad in the early scenes that even though she’s meant to be covering up layers of her chameleonlike persona, her credibility is undermined.
Judging by the opening-night reaction, though, “Venus in Fur” is an audience pleaser, especially for seasoned theatergoers who can relish the insider jokes and neat parallels of a play about a play.
Venus in Fur
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 13
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org