Contributor Samuel Leiter goes for a dip with the latest production from the Debate Society.
Ars Nova is one of those intimate, creatively flexible venues, like the Soho Rep, where you never know what to expect when you enter the space. This is, after all, where a Russian-themed cabaret environment was created for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and where a burlesque theater was imagined for Eager to Lose. With the Debate Society’s production of Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s Jacuzzi, a sometimes humorous, sometimes tense suspense drama with a faint whiff of Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall, the audience is placed in three rows of (uncomfortable) bentwood chairs along one long wall. Only a few inches away on the other long wall is the realistically detailed interior—designed by Laura Jellinek—of a ski chalet high in the Colorado mountains. The wide, narrow room, with sliding doors to the snowy exterior at stage right, is dominated by a practical hot tub used so extensively you’ll feel yourself getting pruney. Bradley King’s lighting creates shimmering reflections of the hot tub’s water on the wood-beamed ceiling. A period-perfect TV figures in the action and puts an accurate time stamp on the plot about to unfold.
It’s 1991 and the hot tub has recently been installed at the bequest of the chalet’s owner, Robert, a well-known child psychologist, who has yet to see it. Despite his reputation, he is lonely and alienated from his 26-year-old son, also Robert but insistent upon being called Bo (Chris Lowell). Hoping for reconciliation, he has paid Bo to join him for a father-son ski race. When Bo, dressed in the latest neon-bright skiing garb (costumes by Jessica Ford), arrives a day early, he finds a young couple calling themselves Helene (Bos) and Derek (Thureen) casually sprawling in the tub; he doesn’t notice it, but each is reading a copy of Making Bobby Robert, his dad’s once controversial book about the experimental methods he used to raise Bo, who views it as a constant embarrassment (“It’s great in Junior High to have everyone know about your first boner.”)
Helene and Derek seem unperturbed by Bo’s intrusion and allow him to assume they are renters (despite the imminence of his father’s visit, he never bothers to ask when they plan to leave). The tub seems to be the only spot of warmth in the otherwise freezing chalet (even though we later learn the couple has been there for weeks) so Bo, stripping to his skivvies, jumps right in. In no time, with the help of dad’s brandy, the whiny and self-absorbed Bo, who has no job and spends his time traveling, is bonding with his new, oddly laid-back buddies, even alluding to something nasty he did to a woman in Romania.
The following day, Robert helicopters in; thrilled to see the tub, he’s soon immersed. Helene and Derek (now calling himself Erik) behave as if they have been hired by a local home service company. But, by now, we realize something is definitely up with these mind-gamers, and that the big-haired Helene and the tall, lanky Erik, with his reddish beard and shoulder-length hippie locks, are anything but the cool, sweetly accommodating persons they pretend to be.
Robert, hated by the locals because of his messy divorce from Jackie, Bo’s mother, whose family is important thereabouts, has what he thinks is the hired help pack up the place in keeping with his divorce agreement. As they do so, we watch the strained father-son dynamic play out between this self-important, clueless windbag and his vacuous, overly entitled son. Each is so blind to any but their own selves—Robert has a disconcerting routine of openly flossing his teeth as a substitute for smoking—they are totally unable to sense there may be monsters in their midst.
As Helene and Erik, cowriters Bos and Thureen do an excellent job in capturing their characters’ spontaneous, easygoing friendliness, which only escalates their creep factor. They are perfectly balanced by the naturalistic, everyday behavior and line readings of Friedman and Lowell. Bos and Friedman both excelled in last season’s The Open House, directed by Oliver Butler, who also staged Jacuzzi, which benefits from his slow, deliberate pacing.
No clear motivations for the predatory couple’s evil are offered, even during Helene’s several voice-over, diary-like commentaries; they seem in it purely for their mutual pleasure, although a possibility of class envy lurks around the corners. At one point, Robert asks Helene what they do for fun, and she, lolling in the tub, enigmatically replies: “I guess . . . just doing stuff . . . like this.” This may be how many psychopaths actually operate, and it can certainly raise gooseflesh, but in conventional dramatic terms, where revenge, greed, or some other force usually drives wicked deeds, it leaves something to be desired.
I’m sitting on the edge of the tub about this one, but, because of the smooth performances and direction, I’m more inclined than not to recommend dipping your toes into Jacuzzi.
511 W. 54th Street
Through November 8
Samuel L. Leiter is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit www.slleiter.blogspot.com.