Friday, October 21, 2011


NOTE: This blog post contains spoilers about both VENUS IN FUR and THE MOUNTAINTOP - the former is about to open on Broadway after a well-received Off-Broadway run last year, the latter is currently running on Broadway after winning the Olivier award in Britain last year.

I got a copy of David Ives' play VENUS IN FUR yesterday from the Dramatists Book Store - it's autographed - ooh.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I had Ives sit in on a meeting of NYCPlaywrights in 2007. I gave him a ride home from Midtown to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and as I was dropping him off we had an exchange that went something like this:

I have a whole bunch of prop bullwhips in the back of my Prius - I ordered too many for a production of my play HUCK FINN - d'ya want one?


I already have one!

(David Ives exits.)


(to the bunch of actors who came along for the ride so they could say they rode with David Ives)

Hah hah - oh that David Ives, he's so droll!

And then I heard about VENUS IN FUR and thought, maybe he wasn't entirely joking.

Well now that I've read VENUS IN FUR I think it's more than maybe - it's probable. Maybe he doesn't literally own a whip but I wouldn't be surprised if his fantasy is to be the M in an S and M relationship. Because VENUS IN FUR is a 90-minute sexual fantasy.

According to Did He Like It the play got all positive reviews when it had an off-Broadway run, although I think the thumbs-up symbol they gave the Variety review is completely mischaracterized - it sure reads like a pan to me:

Unfortunately, the magic of the moment is lost once Thomas picks up the part of the young man destined to become her sex slave. Tentative as Thomas, Bentley ("American Beauty") is downright wooden as his 19th century counterpart. And in this two-character play, he gets the lion's share of the intellectually weighted lines.

Hanging in there, Arianda doesn't let this get her down and delivers a wonderfully quicksilver perf, sliding in and out of her several personae as fluidly as Vanda slips in and out of her provocative costumes. (Fantasy S&M boots, bustiers, and dog collars courtesy of Anita Yavich, who must have had a ball shopping this show.)

What does it all mean, one might ask? Ives advances glib theories about kinky sexual practices as the enlightened route to male-female sexual liberation. But the academic tone makes it agony to sit through Thomas's lugubrious lectures.

I don't know if Ives made changes to the script since the off-Broadway production, but I didn't notice any lugubrious lectures, although that might be as much because I was reading the play rather than watching it.

What I did notice was how incredibly one-note the play is. A guy getting off on being dominated by a woman. And there's no doubt that this is a male hetero-centric work - Vanda wears a variety of traditionally sexy outfits but what Thomas is wearing doesn't matter, because for all Ives' attempts at making some kind of feminist point - and "glib theories" as Variety's critic called it is an accurate assessment - Thomas is the subject and Vanda is the object. Vanda is there to fulfill Thomas's sexual fantasies and she does. That's pretty much the play.

I'm not sure what Ives is trying to say with the ending, which goes like this:

(She takes a real fur stole from her big bag and puts it on)


Who are you?


You know who I am so say it. Say it.


Hail, Aphrodite...


Louder please.


Hail! Aphrodite!

(Lighting and thunder, louder. She takes a triumphant stance, facing him down the room with her feet planted, legs spread, hands on her hips.)


"And the Lord has smitten him and delivered him into a woman's hands."





(Lighting and a deafening crack of thunder. Blackout.)
Is she really Aphrodite? That's not as ridiculous as it might sound because in addition to the thunder and lightening that is heard off and on throughout the entire 90 minute play, she displays unlikely knowledge of Thomas's script - she's already off-book - and of Thomas's personal life.

So maybe suddenly the play becomes supernatural. It doesn't make any difference really - the only power we see this Greek goddess display is the power to turn this guy on - big whoop - any dominant woman in a black-leather bustier and thigh-high boots would have the same exact power. We don't get to see her do any impressive, actual, magic.

The same day I read VENUS I had read some reviews of THE MOUNTAINTOP and was struck by the similar use of the supernatural - in THE MOUNTAINTOP the maid who is visiting Martin Luther King, Jr. in his hotel room, after some slap-and-tickle, tells him she's there to take him to heaven. What is the point of inserting the supernatural? And at least in VENUS IN FUR, Thomas is just some guy with a fetish, so ending the story with the apotheosis of his object of desire doesn't make much difference to the story, such as it is.

The reason MLK is interesting is because of what he did, what he achieved. Having an avatar of a god come by could happen to any character.

Using MLK is just a cheap publicity trick, in my opinion, very much like using Madalyn Murray O'Hair's notoriety to come up with a fantasy riff on O'Hair that is far less interesting than her own life and achievements and must less sensational than her actual death. (I wrote an essay about that Screw Ethics, This is the Theatre.)

I was a little discomfited by the part in VENUS IN FUR where Vanda is transformed in Thomas's eyes from a schlub to an object of desire through the power of her acting. That happens in JULIA & BUDDY - though of course since it's my play it's the man who is the object of desire and the woman who is doing the desiring.

You can't expect to write a play that has nothing in common with another play - and I just identified the supernatural commonality in VENUS and MOUNTAINTOP - but still, I don't want anybody to think I was imitating Ives - I wrote that section of JULIA & BUDDY in 2009, before I knew anything about VENUS IN FUR.

And I must confess, I like my two-person play much better than Ives's play. I think my play has much more variety and the philosophical issues are much more interesting and important. Also, I believe that although it's clear that Buddy is the object of desire, there's more to him than just that. I think there's more balance between the characters. And with any luck, the audience will actually care when Julia & Buddy reunite at the end of the play. I hope to give the audience an emotional orgasm.

VENUS IN FUR gave me no emotional orgasm and I suspect the only people who do get one are those who share Thomas's kink.

And I suspect that Thomas is Ives's Mary Sue (as they call it in the world of fan fiction) because Thomas is completely passive - he wants to be dominated by a woman, but he makes no serious effort to achieve that end. She basically comes in and they play a few head games and then she dominates him. Autobiographical characters are almost always passive - things are done to them, rather than them being the agent of forward-action in the plot.

And in addition to being passive Thomas is also whiny, poncy, critical and self-absorbed. He's some creep with a fiancee who does a little sexual adventuring on the side. Why do I care about him fulfilling his kink? Especially when he could do that any time, day or night, at any of the several dominatrix establishments in New York.

I can't deny I did write a play like that.