More blogging catch-up today. This post is about two (gasp) non-musicals that I saw recently on Broadway. One of these shows has already closed, but is likely to return later in the season. The other closes this week, about a month sooner than it was supposed to. In short: the one that's coming back deserves to, and the one that's closing early is no great loss.
Let's start with Venus in Fur, the smart, funny, surprising new play by David Ives. My only previous experience with Ives was in his capacity as adaptor for the Encores! series at City Center. Ives has the unenviable job of cutting down the libretti to the classic shows that Encores! presents in concert form, and the result is almost always a show with a book that doesn't fully set up or justify the songs. It's really hard to hold this against him, but it was my only previous exposure to Ives.
I had heard really great things about Venus in Fur based on its 2010 Off-Broadway run at the Classic Stage Company. In particular, I had heard that Nina Arianda gave a star-making performance, and after the show closed, I genuinely regretted not having had a chance to see her in the play. However, when I heard that Arianda would be taking on the Judy Holiday role in last season's revival of Born Yesterday, I went out of my way to make sure I saw that production, and I was oh so glad that I did. (Read my review.)
When I heard that the Manhattan Theatre Club would be presenting Venus in Fur as part of its Broadway season at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, I knew that I would be taking the show in, if only to see Arianda fulfill the promise of her word of mouth, and her terrific turn as Billie Dawn. I'm glad to say I was anything but disappointed. In fact, Arianda is a non-stop delight as Vanda, the enigmatic central character in this thrilling two-hander.
I'm convinced that Arianda is going to be a major star. She has such a strong sense of character, and a wonderfully appealing presence on stage. Performers with this much appeal come along very rarely, and if there's any justice, Arianda will grace the stage for many years to come. (Unless Hollywood snatches her away from us. If so, let's hope that she returns to us regularly, as folks like Hugh Jackman, Patrick Wilson, and Laura Linney continue to do.)
Arianda plays an actress who shows up two hours late to an audition. (Or does she? More on that later.) Arianda plays opposite Hugh Dancy, who is every bit Arianda's match as Thomas, the director/playwright for whom she auditions. Arianda certainly has the flashier role, which she handles with astonishing aplomb, but Dancy's achievement is no less noteworthy. The Thomas character is more subtle, but just as complex as Vanda, and Dancy makes the gradual transition from arrogant master to bewildered slave with deceptive ease.
The most satisfying thing about Ives's deftly crafted play is that you're never really sure, even after the final curtain, who is really who, or what is really transpiring between these characters. Much of the fun of Venus in Fur comes from watching the power dynamic shift over the course of the play, and in speculating as to what's really going on. Ives plants questions in the mind of the viewer, and wisely he never fully answers those questions. But, again, that's part of the fun.
As I mentioned, Venus in Fur prompted me to reconsider David Ives as a writer, but it also gave me new insight on director Walter Bobbie. I had long since written Bobbie off as a has-been, coasting on his success with the Chicago revival. I mean, my dismissal is certainly understandable based on his track record since 1996, when Chicago opened: High Fidelity, White Christmas, Sweet Charity, Footloose. You know what I'm saying here? But, based on Venus in Fur, Bobbie is back in my good books, at least as far as non-musicals are concerned. His direction here is smart, swift, and crackling. It's hard to imagine that Arianda and Dancy would have been able to craft such strong performances without Bobbie's guidance. Will Bobbie find a similar return to form with a musical some time soon? I'll certainly be on the lookout.
The response from critics and audience members alike to Venus in Fur has been sufficiently positive to prompt producers to announce that the play would return later this season for a commercial run. If you didn't get a chance to see Venus in Fur in the fall, do yourself a favor and grab a ticket. (Performances resume February 7th at the Lyceum Theatre.)
In the "no great loss" column, we have the latest Broadway revival of Noël Coward's classic comedy of manners, Private Lives, which plays through the end of this week at the Music Box Theatre. It's funny, but my response to this Private Lives was very similar to the way I reacted to the current Anything Goes: I enjoyed both shows while I was in the theater, but the productions really haven't stayed with me, the way that previous productions of each of these shows have. The 1987 Anything Goes with Patti LuPone was iconic. The current production is merely pleasant.
Likewise, I last saw Private Lives in its 2002 revival with Alan Rickman and Tony winner Lindsay Duncan. Both Rickman and Duncan were masterful as Elyot and Amanda, imbuing the production with both the rapid-fire assuredness that Coward's dialog requires, but also the sort of playful chemistry that brings these potentially insufferable characters to life. (Coincidentally, Rickman is currently appearing across the street from the Music Box in Seminar. Some would call that ironic. They'd be wrong.)
The current production of Private Lives features TV stars Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross. Again, as I sat watching the performance, I found Cattrall to be lively and spirited as Amanda, and Gross as Elyot makes for a handsome and dashing rake. Director Richard Eyre certainly keeps the proceedings going at an entertaining clip.
The show just hasn't stuck with me. I can vividly and easily recall specific elements from both Rickman's and Duncan's performances, nine years after the fact. But Cattrall and Gross, while eminently professional, haven't managed to burn the same indelible impressions. Is the comparison fair? Well, if you're going to sign on for a revival of a show that's only just recently had a revival -- and a really good one at that -- you had better be prepared to offer something that the first show didn't. This Private Lives doesn't.
The producers apparently thought that Cattrall would be a significant draw, based on the popularity of the Sex and the City franchise. Perhaps they even hoped that ticket sales would justify an extension or two beyond the show's announced limited run. For that to happen, the show would have needed to cross over beyond the Coward fans and theater regulars into the tourist trade, and that clearly hasn't happened. As I said, the show is closing this weekend, a little over a month early.