An actress's body is her instrument. Certainly the sexpot actress in "Venus in Fur" knows how to play hers like a Stradivarius.
Wannabe starlet Vanda twists herself from an object of desire to a mistress of pain in David Ives' sleek 90-minute mind game. Intelligently directed by Casey Stangl in its regional premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, "Venus" is a metatheatrical game of cat and mouse laced with titillation and plot twists. If the kinky backstage tango never quite sizzles, it's still an entertaining riff on the issues of sex and power.
Out-of-work actress Vanda (Brenda Meaney) struts into Thomas' (Henry Clarke) audition room desperate to land a part. She's wearing leather underwear and a dog collar under her raincoat, and she instantly tickles his funny bone, among other body parts. She's late, ditsy and flustered, but she pushes his buttons with ease.
Having just complained to his fiancee that all young actresses lack the gravitas to fill a classical role, the effete writer/director is flummoxed by how quickly Vanda morphs from ditz to dominatrix.
Soon the "insufferably pedantic" Thomas finds himself submitting to all sorts of shocking requests as she reads for the starring role in an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel "Venus in Furs."
Welcome to a vintage S&M tale where the mistress whips her footmen in between the tea and crumpets.
Vanda ricochets from vulgar to regal and back with every breath. She turns the traditional power balance of the casting room upside down. Indeed, she's the one who has startling insights into the text. She's the one who knows how to work the lighting. She's the dominant one.
The primary flaw in this play within a play is how easily you see into the heart of the matter. Loud echoes of everything from Genet's "The Balcony" to "50 Shades of Grey" ensure that you see where this is going from the first kiss to the last slap.
Pulling off a Pirandellian exercise like this demands that the emotional stakes between the characters be perilously high. Meaney has wicked comic timing, but she never summons up the august power of the goddess of the title. Clarke captures the smugness his role requires, but he's never believable as someone moved by the prospect of submission.
There's also very little sexual chemistry between the actors, which undercuts the torrid nature of this affair. More steaminess would buttress the play's awkward transitions between fantasy and reality.
Without the right heat sparking between Meaney and Clarke, the play's ambiguous edges lack suspense and danger. A moment involving a knife, for instance, needs more menace.
Still, it's quite pleasurable to watch as Vanda stages a revolt against the tyranny of gender and class as embodied by Thomas. Ives nails the degradation inherent in the casting call audition process.
When Thomas attempts to lecture Vanda about the differences between art and pornography, she retorts, "Hey, you don't have to tell me about masochism. I'm in the theater!"
He may be the one in the director's chair, but she is the one running the show. Their little dance macabre unfolds under Alexander V. Nichols' moody lighting, which transforms from the soulless limbo of fluorescent lights to the flickering warmth of self-delusion.
'Venus in fur'
by David Ives
Through: April 13
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20-$120, 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org