NEW YORK — It could be easy to dismiss David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” loosely inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 erotic novella “Venus in Furs,” as salacious smut. After all, Ives’s comedic thriller of a play features psychosexual gamesmanship, talk of submission and domination, and a man wearing a dog collar who gets bound to a pipe.
In the play itself, the character of Vanda, a struggling actress, blithely says of Sacher-Masoch’s book, “basically it’s S&M porn,” just as she’s about to audition for an arrogant young playwright who has written a stage adaptation of the novel.
Even though there’s no nudity or sex in his play, Ives and his director, Walter Bobbie, were steeling themselves for a flood of criticism when “Venus in Fur” premiered off-Broadway in 2010.
“Because of the erotic subject matter, we feared that people were going to laugh at it or people were going to walk out in disgust, or that people would just be bored. It’s a peculiar play,” says Ives, 63, perched on a couch inside the living room of his well-appointed Upper West Side apartment, his hand curled around a cup of coffee.
Those worst fears were unfounded. “Venus in Fur” went on to become a rollicking success, first in its premiere at Classic Stage Company in the East Village, then on Broadway, where it opened in late 2011 and ran for six months. The play made a star out of Nina Arianda, whose electrifying performance earned her a Tony Award for best actress.
Now “Venus in Fur” will receive its Boston premiere courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company. It begins previews on Jan. 3. The Huntington’s staging will be one of 22 productions of the play mounted by regional theaters in the United States this season, making it the most-produced play nationwide (excluding Shakespeare and holiday-themed productions), according to American Theatre magazine. Ives also collaborated with director Roman Polanski on a film adaptation of “Venus in Fur,” which premiered at Cannes last spring and will be released in the United States next year.
Considering its recent run of success, it’s a surprise to hear that the play began with what Ives calls “a very terrible idea” — adapting the notorious 1954 French erotic novel “Story of O” into a stage drama. The problem with that book, a tale of a woman’s all-consuming sexual subjugation by her male lover, is that “there’s nothing less dramatic than somebody just submitting,” Ives says. “The whole point of drama is that it’s people wrangling and mixing it up.”
‘You have these metaphors riding beside each other in the play — theater, sex, love — and they’re all about power.’David Ives, on his play “Venus in Fur”
So Ives turned instead to Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs,” another touchstone text of S&M literature, in which erotic wrangling between a man and a woman is exactly the point, the shifting sexual dynamics of who’s in control and who’s being controlled constantly up for debate.
While Ives calls Sacher-Masoch’s once-scandalous book “a rather dull erotic novel, if there could be such a thing,” the relationship between Wanda von Dunayev and the infatuated Severin von Kushemski intrigued him and seemed ripe for drama.
“There’s this core of real heat at the middle of it — this complicated relationship between two people where you never quite know who has the power,” explains Ives.
Set inside a rehearsal room after a long day of auditions, “Venus in Fur” finds an exasperated Thomas, who’s directing his adaptation, lamenting to his wife (via cellphone) the lack of “articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls.” So he isn’t sure what to make of Vanda when she blows through the doors in a tornado of energy, hours late, soaking wet, brandishing a battered umbrella and a sack full of costumes, while swearing up a storm.
“ ‘Masochism,’ ‘Masoch,’ I shoulda seen that. Wow, so S&M is like named after the guy! Cool!” she says, dizzily, as she coaxes Thomas to let her read for him, even though everyone else has gone home for the day. But Vanda is not the ditzy, vulgar rube that Thomas first assumes her to be, and soon she’s wowing him with her polished European accent and cool sophistication. Then there are the acid-dipped putdowns she flings like poisoned darts toward Thomas’s nether regions — as both Dunayev in the play-within-the-play and as herself skewering his antiquated notions of sex, gender, and power.
In writing the play, Ives first did a straightforward stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. He gave a copy of it to Bobbie, his longtime friend and frequent collaborator, who felt the eroticism was too literal. Ives recalls him saying, “ ‘You can’t put erotic acts onstage, because they’re laughable the minute that we see them acted out. Eroticism is in the mind.’ He also complained that the play didn’t “feel contemporary.”
To solve the problem, Ives homed in on the most dramatic parts of Dunayev and Kushemski’s story. He then created the character of a contemporary playwright searching for an actress to play the part of Dunayev in his adaptation of the novel. Before he knew it, he had written an entirely new play.
Ives was less interested in the kinky-sex aspects of Sacher-Masoch’s story and more intrigued by “an exchange of power” and the shifting dynamics of control in an intimate relationship as “two tectonic plates slide up against each other.”
“One of the interesting things about the play is watching how power changes hands and what people do in order to take it and give it, consciously and unconsciously,” says Chris Kipiniak, who’s playing Thomas in the Huntington production.
Vanda turns the tables on Thomas. She challenges him about the misogyny of the novel, the fact that Kushemski still ultimately holds the power in his relationship with Dunayev even though she’s dominating him, and that women are always at the mercy of men’s whims.
“There’s this interesting transaction in a relationship whereby the person who’s submitting is not necessarily the person who doesn’t hold the power,” Ives says.
Says Daniel Goldstein, who’s directing the Huntington production, “Who’s in control and who’s being controlled at any given moment is really something that’s constantly up for discussion in the play.”
From there, it’s just a short leap to the world of theater, where domineering directors can wield considerable sway over impressionable actors trying to find their footing and win a job. As theater people will attest, an audition room or a rehearsal hall can be a psychological minefield to navigate.
When asked about the theater-as-bondage metaphor, Ives laughs and holds up his “Venus in Fur”-branded coffee mug emblazoned with the words, “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theater,” a line that Vanda fires off to Thomas in the play.
“You have these metaphors riding beside each other in the play — theater, sex, love — and they’re all about power,” Ives says. “I like the kinder, more humane side of the theater. But I’ve certainly seen the brutal, sadistic side of theater in my life, and it ain’t pretty. So you get to draw on that when you write a play.”
Andrea Syglowski, who plays Vanda in the Huntington production after graduating from Juilliard last May, acknowledges the richness of the role she landed. “Sometimes women get to be sexy, and sometimes women get to be funny, and sometimes they get to be smart, and sometimes they get to be brash or cultivated,” Syglowski says. “But you get to do all of those things in this one play.”
As Vanda’s audition for Thomas turns increasingly charged, the lines between fantasy and reality become blurred, as the two characters are locked in an erotic battle of submission and domination.
The motives and identity of the enigmatic Vanda — and the real stakes of the audition — also remain mysterious. She exhibits a surprising command of the material for someone who says she only flipped through the play on the subway. And why, Thomas wonders, is she not on the audition list? All that thunder and lightning from a storm raging outside suggests something else is afoot.
While Sacher-Masoch’s novel has been criticized as sexist, Ives’s work seems to have provoked the opposite reaction, with many seeing Vanda as a feminist avenger. Ives recalls a particular woman who sat in the front row one night during the off-Broadway production, just a few feet from the actors. Every time Vanda flipped the script on one of Thomas’s misguided notions about sex and gender roles, the woman would pump her fist and gleefully shout “Yes!” at the stage.
“So many women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s came up to me in the street to talk about the play,” Ives says. “I get the feeling that if you’ve lived a bit, there’s something about this play that speaks to you. And if you’re a woman who’s lived a bit, it seems to speak quite deeply in some way.”