Within the first few seconds of Venus in Fur, we know Thomas is bound for a fall. Or at least we hope so. He's an arrogant, mid-career New York playwright complaining over the phone about the stupidity of the actors he's auditioned that day—and the stupidity of actors in general—while a storm thunders ominously outside his studio. He's looking for a leading lady for his adaptation of Venus in Furs, the 19th-century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the namesake of "masochism") about a young man's successful search for sexual humiliation at the hands of a cruel mistress. But at the moment, Thomas can't find a woman worthy of his imagination.
"There are no women like this," he whines into the phone. "No sexy-slash-articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls. Is that so much to ask? An actress who can actually pronounce the word 'degradation' without a tutor?" To make sure we get it, real-life playwright David Ives punctuates Thomas's rant with portentous stage directions: "Thunder and lightning. The lights in the room flicker."
Enter Vanda, an aspiring actress who shows up late, wet, and flustered. Thomas insists the auditions are over and he's going home, but she coaxes him into reading a few pages of the script with her. This is Vanda's first victory. Thomas thinks he's doing her a favor, but she's already putting him through his paces by appealing to his pity (her subway got stuck, she's soaked from the rain) and his chivalry (some creep pressed up against her on the train, "the business" is cruel to aspiring actors) and his libido (she shows up wearing a short leather skirt and a dog collar, saying she "just thought I'd kinda get into the part"). Thomas is not as smart as he thinks he is. The only real question in Venus in Fur is the speed and trajectory of his fall.
Ives is probably best known for his very clever, very short plays—including Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread and Variations on the Death of Trotsky—that are more enamored of their concepts than their characters. Venus in Fur, on the other hand, is an actor's playground: two characters stuck in a nearly empty room they have to fill with professional, political, and sexual tension, all through Ives's light touch and candy-coated dialogue.
At Seattle Repertory Theatre, actors Michael Tisdale and Gillian Williams dive in with vigor: seducing, matching wits, occasionally staging full-scale attacks on each other's egos to figure out who's on top. Even if we have a good idea about where these two will end up, it's a pleasure watching the actors frolic through the fights. Tisdale plays Thomas as exasperated and exasperating, wearing his mustache, glasses, and jaded superiority like a suit of smug armor. But if Vanda scratches him just a little, arguing that he's misunderstood a scene or that his play might even be sexist, his angry insecurities come roaring out.
The real fun belongs to Williams as Vanda, who begins the play as a cipher and only becomes a deeper mystery. She knows more—much more—about the novel, the play, and the playwright than he seems to know about himself, but she wriggles out of revealing much about her life. Vanda plays her hand slowly, disorienting and disarming Thomas bit by bit. In the process, Williams gets to hit a broad range of notes in virtuosic succession, from hapless novice to sly coquette to acerbic critic of Thomas's writing and assumptions. But she, too, allows occasional cracks in her facade. After Thomas insults her in a particularly vicious way, she snarls: "Good thing there's no such thing as a goddess, or you'd be fucked, boy." For once, Thomas doesn't have a comeback.
Director Shana Cooper uses the Rep's big stage with a choreographer's eye for power in motion. Vanda and Thomas huddle in a corner for a charged exchange, fly apart to catch their breath, then fly back together—two restless atoms that keep trading electrons. Thomas spends most of his time either on his feet or on the floor, while Vanda reclines on, stands on, and rearranges the furniture, taking possession of the room as she takes possession of him.
For a play draped in sadomasochism and sexuality, Venus in Fur is surprisingly wholesome. Ives may have written the most family-friendly adaptation of Sacher-Masoch in history—a few small changes and it would be ready for any high-school auditorium—and he's definitely written a crowd-pleaser. Last week on Twitter, director Tlaloc Rivas announced that after surveying 150 regional and off-Broadway theaters this season, he found more productions of Venus in Fur (14) than works by August Wilson and Lynn Nottage combined (9). Which isn't an indictment. Venus in Fur does what it does well—it just doesn't do all that much.