So here's a guy you want to have on your radar screen. The 19th-century author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born and raised in the old Austrian Empire. Although he wrote many books, apparently the only Sacher-Masoch novel to be translated into English is the explicit Venus in Furs, an 1870 fancy about an imagined encounter with the Venus of a Titian painting come to life. From this mélange of fantasy the world formed a new word: masochism.
Three years ago the ever-clever writer David Ives adapted Leopold's rarely read erotic novel into a much-seen play, which knocked the Broadway critics for a loop and is now heating up the boilers at the Rep Studio. The steamy two-character, intermissionless Venus in Fur is slightly more provocative than your typical offering in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio series. But hey, a dollop of S&M surely can't hurt at subscription-renewal time.
In Ives' retooling, a young theater maven named Thomas (Jay Stratton) has adapted Sacher-Masoch's novel for the stage but cannot find the ideal actress to portray Venus incarnate. Cue the thunder and lightning, and enter the frazzled Vanda (Sarah Nedwek), who insists on reading for the role. So begins maybe the longest audition you've ever sat through — 100 minutes of dialogue about topics ranging from semantics to sexual power, with a bit of improvised bondage thrown in. At the outset, anyway, the audience licks it up with eyes as big as spoons because, as Thomas asks, "Don't we go to plays for passions we don't get in real life?" And let's be candid: How many of us have placed thigh-high leather boots onto the sinewy legs of a gorgeous woman clad only in bra, panties and bustier? So maybe watching is the next best thing. (There's a word for that kind of watching, isn't there?)
Nedwek has the makings of a Venus. Her body is lithe, and her tawny hair is thicker than honeysuckle vines in the enchanted Forest of Arden. But in addition to being ultra-feminine, she has a wildly ranging voice whose guttural registers sound suspiciously like George C. Scott in a mean mood. She can scare the bejeezus out of you. At her most menacing, Nedwek is about as appealing as Regan by the end of The Exorcist. You wouldn't be all that surprised to see Vanda's head start spinning, either.
In contrast to Nedwek's tangled nature, the guileless, rosy-cheeked Stratton is all transparency. He personifies earnest innocence. Watch Stratton's playwright reading the male character's lines even as he watches Vanda read the lines he wrote. There are fun layers at work here.
But after a while, so much sensuality — and not just the emphasis on matters sexual, but also the duplicity that sets up these degradations — becomes wearying. You'll know when the evening begins to lose its grip. After a while you'll see audience members begin to yawn. Others will begin to check their handheld devices (the ones they were supposed to have turned off) for the time.
None of this is the fault of the production, in which every minute is present and accounted for. Director Seth Gordon has left nothing to chance. To wit: At one point Vanda puts her black leather skirt back on as she tersely summarizes the theme of Thomas' play: "Don't fuck with a goddess is what it's about." Then she underscores her bluntness by zipping up her skirt. The strategically placed sound of that quick zip is how you fill a moment; that's directing.
David Ives is clearly a facile writer. His 1993 collection of one-acts, All in the Timing, is widely revered. Would that Venus in Fur was as lean as are those delightful playlets. At 80 minutes it might have made for a saucy, leave-the-audience-wanting-more evening. Instead it turns out to be a lot more than that. But a lot is not more. Less is.