Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley in Venus in Fur
(© Joan Marcus)
Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley in Venus in Fur
(© Joan Marcus)
A young woman's audition for a play takes some hysterical and some creepy turns in David Ives' clever Venus in Fur, now playing at Classic Stage Company. And while such an exercise might not work in lesser hands, director Walter Bobbie's excellently calibrated direction and two deliciously mercurial performances from Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda make this a delectable two-hander.

The play unfolds in a run-down rehearsal room (designed with a keen eye to detail by John Lee Beatty), where playwright-director Thomas (Bentley) has been holding auditions for a play that he's written based on the novel, Venus in Furs, which some consider to be an erotic classic. It's a situation that sets the stage for exploring gender roles as well as the dominant and submissive relationship between director and performer.

As the play opens, Thomas is bemoaning the sorts of young women he has been seeing all day, complaining that no one seems right for the role of Vanda, an aristocrat who becomes the sadistic mistress to a nobleman. The women he's seen aren't feminine enough or have not done any research into the role or the period. When an actress (Arianda) -- surprisingly named Vanda herself -- enters, spewing obscenities about the terrible commute she's had in the rain, the exhausted Thomas tries to hurry her out, convinced that she will be wrong for the part. She cajoles and pleads for a chance and her persistence eventually pays off.

As they begin to read a scene from his play, Vanda -- who's been exceptionally vapid and scattered -- suddenly transforms into a woman of incredible grace, noble bearing and cleverness. Thomas is clearly impressed and the two read more from the script than he anticipated. As they do, the intricate turns of the characters' relationship and the power games that they play with one another are mirrored in the hairpin turns that Thomas and Vanda's relationship takes.

Costume designer Anita Yavich not only provides some terrific street clothes for the pair, but also manages to get a few laughs that gamely support the script through the use of accessories. Peter Kaczorowski's sensitive lighting design handsomely underscores the increasing tension and sensuality between Thomas and Vanda.

Bentley is a delight to watch as he slowly transforms from a self-important and vain creature into a man who's entirely held in Vanda's thrall. And his fascination and willingness to give in is entirely understandable given Arianda's powerhouse performance. She navigates each twist in Ives' script with precision. She can be hilariously funny (sometimes bringing to mind a young Teri Garr), yet also deftly communicates the character's childlike-nature and vulnerability. And when Vanda takes control of the situation, Arianda does so with forceful -- and riveting -- grace.