Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda in the New York City production of Venus in Fur.
Remakes rarely work. But David Ives, the ace adaptor who has worked his magic on authors ranging from Corneille to George F. Kaufman, has really steamed up Sacher-Masoch. The Austrian writer, whose penchant for pain came to define the delights of masochism, espoused his erotic ethos most famously in the 1870 work Venus in Furs. While the book remains a key text in the nonclinical literature of pyscho-sexuality, its literary pleasures pale beside the outrages of the Marquis de Sade. But Ives—whose smarts and sense of humor make him one of the most sophisticated voices in the American theater—has turned this turgid tome into a sexy romp, just rough enough around the edges to rattle the brain.
Arguably the most seductive offering of the Goodman Theatre’s spring season, Venus in Fur (as Ives titles the show) is a taut two-hander in which an actress’s audition for a role in an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s tale blurs the boundaries of play. “I’m not particularly interested in extreme or transgressive literature, I’m interested in all literature,” says Ives, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side and attended Northwestern University. “It just seemed like Venus in Furs would turn into a wonderful play because the relationship was so complex. It’s also a love story, and love stories are always good.”
Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy in the New York run of Venus in Fur.
An intensely intimate encounter that rides wildly through our perceptions of gender and power, Venus is punctuated with a suave and dramatically gratifying comedic touch informed by a keen literary sensibility and a sure understanding of what plays well across the footlights. Ives first displayed his wit in such one-acts as Variations on the Death of Trotsky and Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread. No slouch at generating original material, he nonetheless relishes taking an existing text and running with it. “It’s much easier when somebody gives you a story and you get to rework it, refine it, and make it yours. And I am terrible with plot. I would bet that Shakespeare was too—35 of his 37 plays were adaptations of other people’s material.”
Although domination and desire lie at the heart of Venus, it is no XXX-rated treat. “It’s sexy, but there’s no sex in the play,” notes director Joanie Schultz. “Masochism is about the delay and denial of pleasure. And I think that is one of the things that keeps the tension going in the play. For me, it’s like a Hitchcock thriller. There’s the suspense of what’s going to happen next. I think it’s going to surprise everybody in a different way.”
Ives was surprised by the reaction the show received when it played New York, where it was a smash hit on Broadway and landed a 2012 Tony nomination for Best Play. “Beyond the fact that audiences really took to it—because we didn’t know what audiences were going to make of this play—was the fact that a really vocally appreciative part of our audience was women over 50. In fact women of 60, 70, and 80 were coming back again and again to see it. I was stopped in the street by many a woman of 75 or 80 telling me how much she liked my play. Which was the opposite of what I expected.” And what had he expected? “I thought that young men of 23 would be stopping me,” he chuckles. “I thought that was my audience.” March 8 through April 13, 170 N. Dearborn St., 312-443-3800