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Venus in Fur brings the whip down at the Unicorn, and it feels good

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The lights come up on a New York casting office, depressingly institutional, a little seedy. We see a bedsheet-draped fainting couch. We think we know what's going to happen.

Thomas Novachek (played by Rusty Sneary), a playwright and novice director, sifts through a stack of head shots, exhausted after a day of auditions for his female lead. He's directing his own adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, a provocative 19th-century novel by the literary father of masochism. He needs a modern noblewoman: someone sexy but smart, adventurous yet modest and refined.

Lightning flashes, the prison-issue overhead fluorescents flicker, and Vanda (Vanessa Severo) bursts into the room, soaking wet and hours late for her audition. She shoves a lean, rain-drenched résumé into Thomas' hands, tumbles into a frenzied and expletive-colored rant about a creep on the train, then whips off her raincoat to show that she has come dressed for the part: sheer black bustier, matching garter belt, panties and stockings.

"Can I run out and fill any prescriptions for you?" Thomas asks her.

She's crass, imperious, fascinating. She shares a name with the play's leading lady. And, as far as Thomas is concerned, she couldn't be more wrong for the part.

From here, the Unicorn Theatre's production of David Ives' Venus in Fur spins into a volatile dance for dominance, a carnal game of cat and mouse in which who is predator and who is prey remain uncertain. For all of Vanda's laughable blunders (she assures Thomas that she was great as "Hedda Gab-uh-ler"), she knows a little too much to be so inept. She has every line of the script memorized, carries an annotated and worn copy of the source novel, and makes some curiously prescient guesses about Thomas' fiancée.

Severo is intoxicating as the capricious charmer, making Vanda's fluctuations between deranged loudmouth and self-possessed seductress look effortless. Her comedic timing is note-perfect ("I'm usually pretty demure and shit," she tells Thomas, adjusting that garter belt against her inner thigh), and she's a fantastic listener, fully present and reactive in each moment.

Her pyrotechnic Vanda might have overshadowed another actor, but Sneary holds his own as the sensitive, serious playwright. It's a low-key performance but no less skilled; his Thomas asserts and wields power insidiously. The two have palpable stage chemistry, heating up the audition room as they slip in and out of Thomas' script, blurring the lines between audition and seduction.

Severo recently finished a stint as Aphrodite in the Living Room's The Death of Cupid, and in some ways this feels like a reprise of that role. But Ives' script resists a simplistic inversion from male domination to goddess worship, offering characters more nuanced and humane. When Thomas launches into a bitter polemic against our cultural obsession with reducing narratives to social allegories (race, gender, class), Vanda accuses him of absolving his play's own sexist paradigms. The debate is heated, sounding at times like Ives arguing with himself.

The technical elements are less nuanced than the psyches, but that seems like a conscious choice. The casting room is a dreary beige dungeon, as degrading to Thomas as the sexual roles he enacts. The lighting cues are minimal, driven by Vanda's rummages through the fuse box when she wants to control the mood. Sound designer Michael Heuer contributes subtle atmospheric effects to underscore the tension, and Georgianna Buchanan's costumes complete Vanda's transitions from modern mistress to 19th-century paramour. The alley-style seating gives the stage the feel of a boxing ring as the actors circle each other and spar.

Ives and the Unicorn keep us guessing for 90 minutes. We're never quite sure what's around the next dramatic bend, and the chase is exhilarating. Not every puzzle about these characters gets solved, but the play packs an erotic charge. Maybe it's my imagination, but the women in the audience seemed to saunter out of the theater with a little more confidence than when they'd come in.

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