‘Venus in Fur’ at Southern Rep in New Orleans: the thinking woman’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

here really was never a doubt that director Aimee Hayes would one day bring the Tony Award-winning “Venus in Fur” to New Orleans. She had never seen it live, but when it opened Off Broadway, she knew this was the kind of production she wanted to direct at Southern Repertory Theater.

“I don’t necessarily want to see things that I direct,” Hayes said in a recent phone interview. “But I had my eyes on it for a couple of years. I think it’s a very exciting comedy, a fun cat-and-mouse kind of game that keeps the audience guessing.”

Exciting isn’t the only word that Hayes used to describe “Venus in Fur,” which kicked off Southern Rep’s 26th season Wednesday at the Contemporary Arts Center. Other words that come to mind are provocative, sexy, electric and, yes, even emotional. “It’s the thinking woman’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ” she said.

Written by David Ives, “Venus in Fur” is a two-person “play within a play” starring Todd d’Amour as Thomas, a writer-director in search of an actress to play the lead in an adaption of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 erotic novella “Venus in Furs,” which inspired the term masochism.

As he laments the inadequacies of the actresses who showed up that day to audition, a new actress, played by Veronica Russell, bursts into the room, displaying some of the same inadequacies as the others.

Yet her emotionally charged audition proves intriguing to Thomas, and as the two work through the script, the lines begin to blur between reality and play, seduction and power, and love and sex.

Just as in “Venus in Fur,” Russell was the last of several actresses to audition for the role of Vanda. Hayes said her on-stage chemistry with d’Amour made her the perfect actress for the part.

“Todd d’Amour has done two plays at Southern Rep, and we wanted to find a good leading role for him, and this is the perfect fit. He is such a dynamic actor. There is such electricity and chemistry between the two. They are so funny as people, and they really challenge each other and push each other. It’s a really exciting rehearsal room to be in.”

Yet directing the play has presented several challenges, Hayes said. “A lot of secrets are revealed, and the biggest challenge is how to keep the audience guessing.

“It’s a fast-moving script. What I love about it is that it shows how men and women interact, and who’s in charge and how it works. (Critic) Liz Smith called it ‘Broadway’s hottest date night. People will see dates they’ve had, marriages, relationships. It’s so funny. At some moments you’re on one side and at other moments you’re on the other side.”

“Venus in Fur” opened Off Broadway in 2010, moving to Broadway’s Lyceum Theater the following year and winning rave reviews, with The New York Times calling it “seriously smart and very funny” and the Philadelphia Inquirer calling it “so sexy you could sweat.”

It was nominated for two Tony Awards — one for Best Play, the other for Best Actress, the latter of which went to female lead Nina Arianda.

“Venus in Fur” will run for 13 performances beginning this week with the first of three preview nights. A talkback and panel discussion will follow the Jan. 11 preview.

Dubbed “Fifty Shades of Grey meets Venus in Fur: Women & Power 2013,” the panel features Susan Larson of WWNO’s “The Reading Life,” Mimi Schippers of Tulane University’s Gender & Sexuality Studies Program and Bella Blue, the headmistress of the New Orleans School of Burlesque.

“I like that kind of digging deeper into a play,” Hayes said, “and they are three of the smartest ladies to do it.”

Barri Bronston is a contributing writer. She can be reached at barribronston@gmail.com.