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Theater review: Flames fizzle when funny flares in ‘Venus in Fur’

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Vanda Jordan whooshes into the grim space extremely late, extremely damp and seemingly powered by eff-bombs.

She blames the subway system, manhole covers, God.

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And she’s just adding anecdotal evidence that confirms writer-director Thomas Novachek’s complaints about actresses these days.

They’re like 6-year-olds who’ve inhaled helium. They can’t pronounce “degradation.”

And whatever happened to femininity?

Vanda bumbles the definition of “ambivalent” and travels with a man-sized, costume-filled tote, but she will spend the next 90-ish minutes leading Novachek through an advanced-level course in dominance and submission. And by the time she asks if she’s gotten the job, he’s in no position to deny her anything.

“Venus in Fur,” by David Ives, is a great pick for a dexterous female lead. Vanda Jordan must ooze from a “gee, you’re great” flirtation to a “zip my knee-high boots” forcefulness — sometimes in the same breath of this sitcom-slash-dom (sitdom?).

Director Molly O’Neill found the right actor in Lacy Habdas, who took command of the production that opened Thursday at The Underground.

Habdas’s Vanda is flirty and complimentary. She has an ease with contempo-slang. She chants “ink spot, ink spot” and morphs into a heaving Victorian. She’s also got an oozy-snake-of-an Aphrodite.

She can hold a knife against a throat and is a natural with laugh-track style comedy.

Jonathan Manchester has a similar task as Thomas. He has to morph from a Type A playwright to a lovelorn sex slave and shows very few seams.

The play, which earned Tony nods, is the story of a writer-director who has shut down auditions for the night when a final actor bursts in and begs for shot in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Fur.”

At first, Vanda seems just as awful as the other awful actors he saw that day. But she takes a moment of weakness to slip into character and leave him glassy eyed with his jaw dropping.

Eventually he is playing opposite her as they read the play, dissect the play and sometimes get more … personal.

The set, designed by Jeff Brown, smacks of an NYC warehouse space. The support beams have rusty streaks. There is one of those random boxes on the wall with random jutting wires.

The best touch is a set of opaque arced windows.

Of course, the big question about a play about a play based upon a book by the namesake for masochism would have to be: Yes, but, is it hot?

It has its moments. Most, however, are interrupted by Vanda stepping out of character to ask for direction or offer a suggestion. Sometimes it’s Thomas’s fiancé calling on his phone.

Plenty of flames get dampened with comedy.

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