By Jim McCarthy May 17, 2012 0 comments

Venus in Fur

I spent the first part of this week in New York City for a number of things, but one of them was the Spring Road Conference of the Broadway League.  It’s a gathering where the producers of musicals that are planning to tour the country get together with people who buy the shows in all the venues around the country where those shows will (potentially) go.  It’s a great gathering of people in the theatre business, so it’s well worth going for the networking and the information sharing, but there’s another side benefit…

The producers of the shows have a big incentive to get conference attendees to see their shows.  The result is that as an attendee, you can go see a show (or more) a day.

My favorite by far this week is a play at the Lyceum Theatre called Venus in Fur. I’m not going to do a critique or a review or anything, but I’ll give you some basics and then make a point about it.

It’s simple: it’s two people and a single set.  A playwright is auditioning actresses for a part in a risque play based on an obscure Victorian-era book (which may or may not exist…I didn’t check).  He’ s frustrated with everyone he’s seen, when this brash young woman walks in who seems totally wrong in every way for the part (and she’s late for the auditions anyway and he’s about to head home), until she starts reading the lines with him, and she’s perfect.  As the play goes on, it gets weirder and weirder.  Her true identity becomes more and more mysterious and the heat between the two characters goes from cold to simmer to boil.  It’s a seriously grown-up play with a heck of a lot to like about it.

But the kicker in all this, the thing that makes it boil is the actress, Nina Arianda.  I don’t even know how to describe her performance and I’m not going to play junior critic and try.  Suffice to say that for the entire 90 minutes or so of the show, her pace never really slows down.  She’s playing a complex, screwy, multi-leveled character doing different parts as that character and she makes it feel totally organic and real.

I take away a couple things: first, as big a fan as I am of spectacle in entertainment, this show proves that you don’t NEED spectacle to dazzle an audience.

The flip side of that coin is that this play does not, in my opinion, justify the purist argument that “all you need is actors and a set so why should anyone add to that?”

Yes, actors and a set or a singer and a guitar CAN work, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best a show can be.  In this case, the actress is an incendiary device (and the actor, Hugh Dancy, does his job well too, but I think everyone would admit he’s a foil to her).  Not every show does or can have that.

Another way of looking at it is to say that every show needs something extraordinary.  Not just really good, but extraordinary.  If you have one extraordinary thing, everything else has to be merely really good.  The extraordinary thing could be anything, but there needs to be one.  More if possible.

As many as possible.  But at least one.  A cabinet full of really good, whether spectacular or purist, just doesn’t do in an age of entertainment competition like ours.

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