Funny Lady, Mad Man: Venus in Fur in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre; King Lear at the Public Theater

<em>Godspell</em> at Circle in the Square Theatre; <em>Other Desert Cities</em> at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater

"Other Desert Cities." (Photo by Joan Marcus)

An argument has been made, most recently and notably by Christopher Hitchens, that women are inherently not funny. It’s not true, of course, but, still, there’s a long history—from Phyllis Diller and her fright wigs to Tina Fey and her layered thrift-store ensembles—of funny women playing down their femininity to best get laughs.

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There are many enjoyable things about Venus in Fur, that mostly delicious psychosexual pas de deux by David Ives that opened last night at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. But most enjoyable of all is how the unstoppable comic talent Nina Arianda—who wowed critics and audiences in Venus’s first, off-Broadway run at the Classic Stage Company early this year and then did the same in her Tony-nominated Broadway debut this spring, as the classic dumb blonde Billie Dawn in the revival of Born Yesterday—turns that sexist saw on its head.

Playing Vanda, the young actress auditioning opposite the slightly pretentious playwright and director of Venus’s play-within-the-play, Ms. Arianda is beautiful, sexy, alluring and almost maddeningly hilarious. As directed by Walter Bobbie, she is a gifted physical comedian who can deliver perfectly timed line readings—while more than competently filling out lacy black S.&M. garb.

It’s a perfect fit for her character, who arrives late, wet and harried for the audition, a discombobulated mess, but gradually reveals her calculating, steely spine and gains utter control of the proceedings.

Ms. Arianda’s Vanda is reading for a role also called Vanda, in the play-within-the-play adaptation of a 19th-century novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (for whom, not incidentally, masochism is named). In the story, and in the internal play, a man enters a contractual relationship with the woman he is obsessed with, committing himself to be her slave. The question is whether she has the power, as the master, or he does, as the one who instigated the arrangement. Mr. Ives does an elegant job of mirroring those changes of domination and submission in his larger play, as roles continually reverse between Vanda and her director, Thomas (Hugh Dancy). It’s funny, fascinating and mysterious.

It’s also just a drop too long, with a few too many power-play reversals in the final moments, threatening to render what should be gripping just a bit tedious. (Off-Broadway, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood dubbed Venus “90 minutes of good, kinky fun.” Now, somehow, it’s 105 minutes of slightly less good, still kinky fun.) Mr. Dancy is perfectly fine but not in any way memorable, never mind that the British actor’s American accent doesn’t always stick.

But Ms. Arianda is so good that to say she’s the best part of the evening is not really to criticize anything else. She’s funny, she’s feminine, and she’s fantastic.

The thing that sticks with you about Sam Waterston’s King Lear is the wheezing.

Playing the elderly, dying and delusional king in a new production of Shakespeare’s great tragedy that opened at the Public Theater last night, Mr. Waterston’s Lear is from the play’s first moments a feeble and mad ruler.

King Lear opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his three daughters, with the most territory going to she who loves him best. His youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia (Kristen Connolly), won’t compete for her father’s affections and so is banished; so, too, is his loyal friend the Earl of Kent (John Douglas Thompson), who stands up for Cordelia. Without power and a burden on his other two daughters, Goneril (Enid Graham) and Regan (Kelli O’Hara), Lear is left impotent and raging; and as Mr. Waterston charges through the soliloquies, even some of his earliest ones, most disturbing is the wheezes, the sharp, grating, gravelly intakes of breath between lines.

Those might be the sounds of an aging actor mustering his many powers for a late-career turn in one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most demanding parts (as we heard some around us suggesting at intermission). But we prefer to believe it’s a conscious choice on Mr. Waterston’s part (as others were arguing), a clever and effective way of conveying the tension at the heart of this mighty man: he still conceives of himself as in command, but he no longer has the resources.

This production of the sad and sobering play—nearly every character is dead or destroyed by the end—was built around Mr. Waterston, who has had a long and prominent association with the Public; among many other roles, he played Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park in 1975, long before Jack McCoy had even considered a career with the district attorney’s office. His performance here is electric and commanding, a nuanced portrayal of a great man in terminal decline. What is admirable is the degree to which he is willing to lose himself in the part: he is not a star—Sam Waterston as Lear—but an actor, a talented man playing a jittery, angry madman.

Funny Lady, Mad Man: Venus in Fur in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre; King Lear at the Public Theater