It still takes two to tango, and now Nina Arianda — a star born last year Off-Broadway in Classic Stage Company's Venus in Fur — has Hugh Dancy to play with in her sensual sand-pile, which Manhattan Theatre Club moved uptown Nov. 8 into its Broadway house, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
And how they go at it in David Ives' unbridled (if not necessarily unmanacled) sex comedy! Eventually, it jumps the laugh tracks and settles into a smoldering pattern that's fun to watch. There's plenty of kinky, kinetic man-woman stuff between the claps of thunder and bolts of lightning that begin and end the play.
That's the way the theatre gods announce the birth of their stars. You may have heard them the first time Jan. 13, 2010, when Arianda, eight months out of NYU grad school, stepped so convincingly into the star spot at CSC as a Vanda of two faces.
The first we see is Vanda Jordan, an abrasive, scatterbrained, wannabe actress who arrives hours late to audition for playwright-director Thomas Novachek for a part she's patently wrong for — Vanda von Dunayev, a 19th century seductress in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's notorious S&M novel, "Venus in Fur."
Vanda One arrives at this dreary rehearsal hall, ringing wet from the aforementioned storm outside and dropping F-words all over the place, but she dries out and cleans up rather well. Soon, she has culled and cajoled Thomas into reading for the part, with him feeding her lines and her borrowing costumes and props from a bulging duffle bag. Arianda slips into this cultivated creature from another century as smoothly as she does a pair of thigh-high leather boots she finally dons. It's much like Barbra Streisand going from 20th-century Daisy Gamble to 19th-century Melinda Winifred Waine Moorpark Tentrees in "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."
The power games then begin, and this is where Dancy comes in handy. His plausible Americanese dovetails naturally into cultured tones for the play, and he stands his ground commendably in both centuries against Arianda's erotic steamrolling.
Back and forth they go, from past to present, from play to reality, matching each other blow for blow, wearing down resistance until the roles have reversed.
The opening-night audience seems to be drinking all this in as though it were in a state of hushed lust. Whatever, with the final flash of lightning and blackout, both floors of the house were immediately on their feet, in the dark, cheering the leads.
At the after-party held at B.B. King's, author Ives teasingly insisted his audition with Arianda "was just like the play. Vanda rhymes with Arianda — think about that! In the play, she says she's an Army brat, and Nina is an Army brat. She seems to be erasing the line between reality and my play too often."
As a matter of fact, he did make changes for Broadway: "Since CSC, I changed probably 20 words, but they were 20 very important words." The best and most conspicuous change, of course, was a new sparring partner. "Hugh was actually on our list for a very long time, and, when we found we were coming to Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, he was right there on the top of the list. He's an amazing addition. Also, Nina has lived a year and a half since she did the play the first time and grown as an actress. She found new ways to make this better, subtler, funnier and so on. And, of course, I had time to think about it and find ways to refine it. It's the constant, daily job of making something better than it was yesterday."
The applause that greeted the evening's performance struck him as more than just that of an opening-night audience. "That was because Nina and Hugh were giving a real performance tonight and not an opening-night performance," Ives said. "They were giving the performance that they have been giving for the last three weeks, with all the new things that they've discovered along the way. They go into this every day, and they dig and dig and dig. They're going off a very high springboard, and they went off it tonight and executed every double-gainer perfectly. The audience reacted the way they did because Hugh and Nina really gave it their all."
Director Walter Bobbie, who refereed this sexual warfare with grace and detail, relished having the audience's intense attention for so many long spells.
"It's wonderful when you can hear silence," Bobbie admitted. "It's the most thrilling thing in the theatre when you've actually engaged the audience and you hear them being completely riveted, on the edge of their seats. It's a great feeling of accomplishment when you can do that. It's always thrilling to get good material and satisfying to feel you've come in some ways to illuminate and match the material.
"Ives has written a play of such psychological tension. You have these two people who are willingly cooperating in a very dangerous game, and you just don't know what's going to happen next. Yes, it's sexy. Yes, it's lighting. Yes, there's eroticism — but there is such a psychologically complex thing that starts to happen, and it feels dangerous. I think that's what's riveting about it. And these actors bring the kind of spontaneity to the stage so that you don't know what to expect next from them."
The rapport between the two performers was apparent to Bobbie from the get-go. "What happened was that Hugh really seemed to want to do this part, and he came in and actually auditioned. Often, actors of Hugh's stature won't audition. He not only auditioned, he auditioned with Nina, and you could feel the chemistry between them. You could also feel a sense of trust — as colleagues, as actors — that they were going to go fearlessly into the psychological fabric of this material. That was just a gift. And I think that that's what you felt tonight. You felt two actors who trust each other completely. She knocks it across the net, and he knocks it right back."
As for Dancy: "I think a game of tennis, maybe, would be less tiring, but I'm having a great time with Nina, with Walter, and I have had since Day One."
The actor said he wasn't intimidated about going up against a breakout performance that had already collected three major acting awards (the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Theatre World Award and Actors' Equity's Clarence Derwent Award).
"I'd read the play, and I didn't see the production before," Dancy said simply. "I knew, certainly, that Thomas was a great role for an actor, and I wanted to have the experience of being on stage with Nina for an hour and three-quarters."
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