Many human relationships - on the street, in the office, in the bedroom, on the stage - boil down to simple sadomasochism.
That dynamic is ably explored in David Ives' superbly aware play Venus in Fur, presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company through June 23. Previews begin Friday at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
Venus in Fur, in which Fur is singular, takes off from (but isn't really based on) a famous/notorious 1870 erotic novel, Venus in Furs, in which Furs is plural, by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. You speak Sacher-Masoch's name each time you say masochist. His novel concerns a book about a man who, in pursuit of a fantasy, asks a woman named Wanda to take him as her slave. She does, with muscle. Venus in Furs has been made into several films in Europe.
Now imagine a play about this novel. Thomas Novachek, director, has had a lousy time all day, auditioning actresses for the female lead. They stink. We come upon him on the phone, complaining. There aren't any women like the woman he wants:
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?
Then . . . Vanda Jordan bursts in, very late, spouting excuses, wanting to try out. And she's a nightmare.
That's where Venus in Fur, a play about a play based on a book about a book, takes us. It's a two-person, man-woman piece that explores in explosive, painful, funny, profound fashion the way relations - power, artistic, sexual, and above all human - develop and change.
"I wrote the play, but I can't tell you what it's about, because I myself don't know," says author Ives, from his home in Manhattan. "I've thought about it, believe me, and I haven't found a box to put this in."
Venus debuted in 2010 Off-Broadway and went on to a much-praised Broadway run, with two Tony nominations. The present Venus is a coproduction between the Philadelphia Theatre Company and the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J.
"We knew exactly what we wanted," says Sara Garonzik, executive producing director of the Philadelphia Theatre Company. She worked with George Street's artistic director, David Saint, to select director Kip Fagan and the cast, Mark Alhadeff as Thomas and Jenni Putney as Vanda.
Garonzik says that "Ives is one of the smartest, wittiest writers alive. He brings an encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything. Yet the thing about him is that he writes with this combination of high and low humor."
Philadelphia Theatre Company first presented Ives in 1994, with the celebrated group of one-acts titled All in the Timing, and again five years later with another collection, Lives of the Saints. The Ives play New Jerusalem was so well-received in its fall 2011 production by Lantern Theater Company that it was brought back last fall and sold out again. Lantern's next offering, also successful, was Ives' adaptation of Pierre Corneille's verse play The Liar.
As for Venus, Garonzik says, "There's so much tension, so much energy in it - and it's totally unpredictable. It takes you by surprise."
Ives says he certainly was surprised: "I kept writing because I was curious to see what happens."
Venus is a play with many a reversal of expectation. Ives says, "Well, isn't that the story of most Western drama - Oedipus Rex, Antigone and the King, Chekhov, Beckett, Pinter?" He does, he says, get a kick out of W/Vanda: "You could say she's all wrong, that she embodies all the things he hasn't liked in the auditions he's seen - but in another way, maybe she's Santa come down the chimney. Maybe she's perfect, the fulfillment of all his wishes. Maybe."
Be careful what you itch for.
With compassion and humor, Ives seeks to get beyond both easy preconceptions and what we think is transgressive. When Thomas tells Vanda, "There are no villains in this piece," he speaks of the play he directs and the play he's in.
Venus began as an adaptation of a novel, "but it soon stopped being that, or being only that," says Ives. "Here I had these two people, in this room, and then, it seemed as if I had added one volatile chemical to another and gotten a very dangerous mixture."
Ives could be speaking about Venus in Fur when he says: "The theater inside my head is better than any theater I could see on stage."