For this year’s installment of their annual collaboration, Raleigh Little Theatre and Actors Comedy Lab present a comedic duet by David Ives titled Venus in Fur. This Tony Award-winning work imagines what might happen when a director who is full of himself meets an actress who is more than his match, and the two lock horns in another skirmish of the Battle of the Sexes.

The play is set in current-day New York City where, in a small rented space, director Thomas (Tony Lea) is attempting to cast his heroine in a play he has adapted from a nineteenth century novel. Both the novel and the play are titled Venus in Fur, and Thomas is beside himself because he has spent the day trying to cast the work and has found no one who is up to the role. He commiserates with his fiancée on the phone about the lack of talent in today’s actress and is about to wrap up for the day when in bursts Vanda (Diana Cameron McQueen), drenched from the storm outside and cursing a blue streak from her devil of a day. She is hours late for her appointed time and is immensely apologetic, especially when she learns that she is not down for a 2:15 appointment as she claims. Nevertheless, perhaps due to the fact that no one else has read satisfactorily for the role, Thomas decides to let Vanda read for the role. Coincidentally, Vanda is also the name of the character she hopes to play.

Vanda, who has been studying the script on the train, tries several times to address the play’s content but is shot down each time by Thomas, who steadfastly maintains that this is a serious 1870s novel of high repute. But Vanda, who knows the script far better than she should, continues to try and crack Thomas’ shell in an effort to get at the “meat” of the role.

The play is set in a rented studio space with a sparse set consisting only of a small director’s table and what is quite literally a casting couch, a divan placed upstage left. Joncie Sarratt designed the set, complete with thunderstorm and a rather noticeable bit of heating pipe upstage right. This pipe will play a prominent role before the play is through. Joshua C. Allen (lighting design) has installed several switches on the backstage wall that seem to control the lighting in the studio. It’s puzzling that Vanda knows both where these switches are and how to operate them to obtain the lighting effect she desires.

Director Rod Rich has the characters battling out the roles in this play within the play at first as a bit of fun, but as this work progresses, the fun turns to deadly earnest as Vanda begins to reveal to Thomas who she really is. Vanda is both extremely familiar with the role and impishly provocative with Thomas. There is a true locking of swords in the final stages of the game, as both Vanda and Thomas battle for supremacy, both within, and without, the play itself.

These two actors are tremendously right for their roles. Lea played Thomas as a pent-up individual who is quite full of himself, and who has adapted this work with the blood and tears of a man too closely aware of its underlying meaning. Lea made Thomas seem extremely aloof until Vanda’s magic begins to work on him.

Vanda has an answer for all of Thomas’ questions, except the one that asks who she really is. She seems to know Thomas and his life far too well, and she is beginning to pierce the directorial role Thomas has cast for himself.

By the time Thomas fully realizes who he is dealing with, the play is almost over. This little game of cat-and-mouse leaves us wondering just which role is which, as these two fine actors bring the play to an astonishing close.

Actors Comedy Lab has created another tour-de-force with this quietly explosive play, which leaves us all a little shocked, but not entirely surprised, at the final outcome. Be warned, the play is R rated, both for language and for adult themes. While the play seems to leave its comedic aspects behind as it draws to a close, this blockbuster is a surprise package that is not only for Thomas’ benefit.

Venus in Fur continues through Sunday, February 1. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.