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Shows Worth Seeing:

Venus in Fur

By David Ives
Samuel Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

The prodigious buzz swirling around Venus in Fur is mostly coming from over-the-top praise for the actress Nina Arianda. Arianda is giving a splendid, physically comic performance as Vanda, a young actress who arrives late for an audition and then manipulates her way into not only being heard but also strangely dominating Thomas, the author-director. It ought to be said, though, that the play’s basic conception is itself responsible for a lot of the fun. Venus in Fur is a prolonged variation on the ever trusty casting-couch scene—you know, pretty-girl climber does what’s necessary to grab the next showbiz rung—delightfully twisted into a wonderfully suspenseful pretzel. David Ives has arranged Vanda’s multifarious gambits—she’s weepy one moment, then floozy-ignorant, then cuttingly observant—with devious cleverness, so we’re never quite sure what the game is, and neither is Thomas. Furthermore, the play has a bombshell ending, which I cannot reveal, that is the most profoundly theatrical climax for its setup I can imagine. For all that, the text isn’t airtight: a few major transitions feel unjustified and some gags are repetitious. Also, Hugh Dancy is miscast as Thomas. He comes off as a weak-willed man prone to masochism from the outset, whereas maximizing the psychological comedy of this situation requires an arrogant, egotistical man whose vulnerabilities have to be truly disclosed and extracted by Vanda. It’s a testimony to the strength of both Arianda’s performance and the dramatic conception that these drawbacks don’t ruin the evening. Walter Bobbie's production is a big, fat, sexy pleasure and even, in the end, something of a feminist provocation.


Other Desert Cities

By Jon Robin Baitz
Booth Theatre
222 W. 45th St.
Box office: (800) 282-8495

If you share my view of Jon Robin Baitz as a talented and ambitious playwright who too often gets trapped by his own rhetoric, then Other Desert Cities will happily surprise you. Unlike previous Baitz works like The Film Society and Substance of Fire, this new play doesn’t feel like a setup for a grandstanding climactic debate where everyone is implausibly articulate and the antagonists feel more like debating positions than people. Other Desert Cities is a refreshingly messy family tale. It does have a climactic debate, but not one with a neat conclusion, and it leaves a strong sense that the story developed in ways that surprised the author. That’s a promising genesis for any drama. The family’s parents, played with dead-on bombast and bluster by Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing, are Hollywood royalty turned right-wing muckamucks. Having gathered their two grown children in Palm Springs for Christmas one year—Trip and Brooke, played with appealing relish by Thomas Sadoski and Rachel Griffith—they are forced to confront a closeted old ghost when Brooke shows them the typescript of a searing memoir she has written about her long dead brother. So far, so trite. Family reunions spoiled by angry progeny are as common as drunken Irishmen in the theater. And this family argument takes on a worryingly familiar political cast as liberal Brooke accuses Reaganite mom and dad of callous selfishness. Thankfully, events take a sudden and utterly unpredictable turn here that, among other important matters, completely reboots the family argument. Identities are fundamentally questioned, fixed moral positions are examined and overturned, and rather than resolving the many loose moral threads, the play ends up tying them into fascinating new knots. Joe Mantello’s production is perfectly calibrated to set up both the big surprises and the crucial emotional steps along the way to maximum effect, and in the end the evening grips you in ways you could never have anticipated.



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