PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Venus in Fur — Dancy with the Star

Meet the first-nighters at the opening of David Ives' Venus in Fur starring Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy.

Nina Arianda; guests Jonathan Groff, Christie Brinkley and Eric Bogosian
Nina Arianda; guests Jonathan Groff, Christie Brinkley and Eric Bogosian (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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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."

[flipbook]

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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Arianda thanks her lucky star for her breakout role and knows who's responsible for all the fascinating, idiosyncratic trappings that go with Vanda: "Everything that she is about is thanks to David Ives. I have very little to do with it other than put it into action, and it's a genuine honor to speak David Ives' words every night."

Wouldn't it have been nice to ride all that initial praise from CSC to MTC? "Yes, but I wouldn't be so grateful for everything if we didn't have that time to think." She also wouldn't have gotten to Broadway in Born Yesterday before she got there in Venus in Fur, and that brought her a whole raft of other award nominations. Her comic side has the squeaky, blowsy echoes of Judy Holliday, but Arianda was smart enough, and actress enough, not to imitate Holliday in Born Yesterday.

"I have to say that I'm incredibly happy that my scenario happened — not only for myself, obviously, because I get to do what I love but because there are so many young actors out there who are not names, who are so hungry and so passionate, and they really deserve a chance. I celebrate them tonight as well."

Arianda's talent is that she seems to have come out of nowhere fully formed — not for nothing does Bobbie call her "Young Streep" — but her reason for arriving that way is simple: "I want it. I always will, and the moment I don't, I'll leave."

Set designer John Lee Beatty, who specializes in the House Beautiful of the upper middle class ( We Live Here, A Delicate Balance), seems to be creatively slumming with the perfunctory rehearsal space he has designed here, but he has slyly invented some fun for himself: "There are a few in-jokes for us about rehearsal halls that we know," he admitted, "things like putting some lighting equipment on the sprinkler pipes, which is really against the law but we've all been in rehearsal halls that have lights on their sprinkler pipes. Little jokes like that."

Walter Bobbie
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Lynne Meadow welcomed the first-nighters to a new season of Manhattan Theatre Club productions as its artistic director, and she will personally direct its next offering — Margaret Edson's moving, Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit about a university professor diagnosed with stage IV, metastatic ovarian cancer.

"I think that any play I do I have a personal calling to," said Meadow, "but I think that, obviously, this is a subject about which I've had a personal experience, but I am eager to bring my artistic heart and soul to it. I'm a breast cancer survivor. I'm looking forward to doing this. It's not my story. It's a story about a wonderful character named Vivian Bearing, and I can't wait to work with Cynthia Nixon. She's just one of our great actresses." It opens Jan. 26 at the Friedman.

Opening-night glitter came from Ari Gold; Mrs. Dancy ( Claire Danes); choreographer Rob Ashford, ready to reprise his London steps for Evita; Benjamin Walker; Eric Bogosian; Kieran Campion; playwright Jeff Talbott and the cast of his just-closed, Bobbie-directed The Submission ( Rutina Wesley, a bespectacled Jonathan Groff, Will Rogers and Eddie Kaye Thomas); playwright Molly Smith Metzler and director Leigh Silverman and the cast of their upcoming MTC comedy, Close Up Space ( David Hyde Pierce, Colby Minifie and Michael Chernus); Carrie Preston; Amy Ryan; director John Tillinger, Broadway-bound before season's end with his Chicago hit, Don't Dress for Dinner, a sequel to Boeing-Boeing; Phyllis Newman; Kathleen Marshall; Margaret Colin, wearing well a passionate shade of purple; Richard Kind; playwright Matthew Lopez; Evita's Michael Cerveris and Kimberly Kay; Doubt Tony winner Adriane Lenox; Sierra Boggess of the forthcoming Rebecca; Andre Holland; David Pittu; keeper-of-the-Kaufman-flame Anne Kaufman Schneider, fresh from a reading of her dad's The Man Who Came to Dinner and predicting "an excellent Sheridan Whiteside" in Jim Brochu when Peccadillo Theatre Company puts it out there Dec. 4-18 at Theatre at St. Clements; Mercedes Ruehl; a stiletto-heeled Christie Brinkley; The Bakers of Broadway (or at least the Friedman): Good People's Becky Ann and Mauritius' Dylan; Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Nilo Cruz and David Lindsay-Abaire; one of the Tony-nominated Scottsboro Boys, Colman Domingo, now set for Athol Fugard's Blood Knot at Signature in 2012; and Grechen Mol, celebrating her birthday with a sexy night of theatre.

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