The term "masochism" — the practice, should you require a definition, of deriving sexual pleasure from the feeling of pain — has its origins in the fine work of one Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. His major opus of domination and subjugation was the novel "Venus in Furs," wherein the central (one might venture to say "dominant") character Wanda von Dunajew has a real nice way with furs and pistols.
"Venus in Fur" is the title, and the Sacher-Masoch novel some of the content, of the current show at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Joanie Schultz, stepping up from the off-Loop scene into a marquee house. But this is not some period Austrian slap and tickle at the Goodman, designed to restart the heart and the subscriber libido in this cold weather we've been having. No, sirree. "Venus in Fur" also is the title of the very smart, sexy and self-aware David Ives two-person play that did very nicely on Broadway in 2012 and now is very much the flavor of the season at America's regional houses of good repute.
Here's the setup. A writer named Thomas (Rufus Collins) has created a dramatic adaptation of "Venus in Furs" and, being the mistrustful type, is directing his own work, in New York but far from Broadway. He is auditioning for his Wanda in some former sweatshop turned rehearsal space (designed, expansively, by Todd Rosenthal). At the top of the play, he is disgruntled, having seen a slew of ill-prepared and unsuitable actresses forging fake Wandas, far from Thomas' fervent dreams. But just as he is packing up and preparing to go home to his fiancee, in walks an actress who also happens to be named Vanda (Amanda Drinkall). Or so she says.
She seems chaotic, scatterbrained and her credits are thin. Her appointment, which she has missed, cannot be found in the director's book. But she's come prepared in revealing black lingerie. And she carries a whole variety of other props in her valise.
Since his script reader has gone home, Thomas finds himself acting out his own play with this mysterious stranger whose motivations are devilishly unclear. Is she just an actress with chutzpah and natural assets that she is willing to exploit? Or are her motivations more complex, shaded and personal? After all, the familiar theatrical relationship between (often older) male director and (often younger and beautiful) female actress is shot through with issues of power and control. And the director-actor relationship invariably is intimate, and invariably complicated for the real-life partners of both parties.
Ives also hits two other themes very hard. One is the extent to which playwrights have leave to write their own sexual fantasies: Thomas rails against the practice of asking playwrights if their characters represent themselves (or their desires). Vanda laughs in his face: He doth protest too much. Playwrights, she tells him, have been doing that for years. Then there is the little matter of the relationship of masochism (and its twin kink, sadomasochism) with gender politics.
This is perhaps the most interesting of the play's themes and, simultaneously, a savvy bit of self-protection by Ives. Once you introduce lingerie and naked flesh — not to mention handcuffs or chains — you bring up the issue of whether this particular entertainment is little more than sexist eroticism aimed at the male viewer and shrouded with period remove. By making that dodge one of the central themes, and suggesting that the heroine may just be out for revenge, the play avoids such a charge itself.
To most minds. Ives also has written a very beguiling 100-minute drama that manages to titillate and entertain while conveying enough intellectual content that a subscriber in the third row does not feel like this has been a trip to the Kitty Kat Lounge in South Bend, Ind. (the subject of another, different play I saw this past weekend). This is a superb piece of commercial writing; the production, though, does not fully reach its heights.
The main problem is a lack of danger. The subsidiary problem is a lack of sharp edges and contrasting turns within what's basically one long scene and a surfeit of the mushy middle ground that excites no one, especially, as it happens, the masochist. The tertiary problem is chemistry that only really snares a palpable reaction from its two agents very late in the project.
Drinkall is one of Chicago's brightest rising stars and an actress of formidable range: She struggles, though, with conveying the persona of a dangerous sexual manipulator, which has to be one of Vanda's many hues. The average masochist — or so I am told — likes to feel really in danger, however controlled the circumstances. Drinkall's antics, sexy and honest as they may be, come with a constant warmth and vulnerability, which will serve Drinkall well throughout her career but that, ideally, Vanda can switch off as easily as she can turn off the lights.
Collins, meanwhile, often gets trapped in the decent, nicely articulated middle when, to put this frankly, you ought to be constantly unsure as to whether his thing is domination or submission. Or both at once.
The last half hour of the show is by far the strongest: You finally see real stirrings in Collins, and Drinkall gains confidence. Schultz also starts taking more risks and finding bolder choices. But there still is a mercurial aspect that those playing the characters in this juicy piece of writing still need to acquire, and a smell of danger that the production still lacks.
I won't spoil things by giving away more details on what transpires here (and certainly not why), but it will come as no surprise to anyone that Vanda, at one point, wants to know if she has the part. In this production, that moment barely gets any punctuation, alas, but as any actress will tell you, that's the big win, and the reason some actresses are willing to seduce a director in any number of weird ways.
When: Through April 13
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $25-$86 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org/venus