To some, the personal whirlpool spa known as the Jacuzzi is a germy, cramped, luxury punchline. But to the 1980s quartet in The Debate Society’s wickedly comic new play (playing at Off Broadway’s Ars Nova through Nov. 1), it’s an unmistakable way of life. Director Oliver Butler and actors Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen (who comprise the above-named theater company) have made splashes with works such as Blood Play and Buddy Cop 2, incorporating deadpan naturalism with sinister undertones. Jacuzzi furthers the trend, with some terrific results.
As the play opens, we see two folks with an awful lot of hair, Helene (Bos) and Derek (Thureen)—or as he’s sometimes called, Erik—chillaxing in the play’s titular tub (which is fully operational on stage, in case you wondered). They are both reading the same biography and exchanging niceties and piquant observations about the Colorado ski chalet they’re inhabiting (mounted impressively on a taut, 47-foot horizontal set by Laura Jellinek). But who are they…really? It isn’t until the chalet owner’s overprivileged, nervous son Bo (Chris Lowell) arrives with literal and metaphorical baggage that we learn that Helene and Derek are caretakers on the estate. But again, are they? Robert (Peter Friedman), the divorced author who owns the property, certainly seems to think so. He shows up attempting to reconnect with his distant son, whom he reimburses financially to spend time with him. A fractured family emerges, and Robert begins to treat the odd duo that help him pack boxes and shop for groceries as if they’re his offspring. But if this is all a charade, how long can it be kept up?
Quite a while, as it turns out. Butler’s production is best when it is at its most cryptic. For most of the run time, the audience questions the motives of the shaggy pair, and the creators have nailed such a distinct tone, one isn’t sure whether to laugh or recoil in horror at what might unfold. Curiously, the play is less on target when it becomes more revealing (there’s a narration device that it probably could have lost). Still, there’s no mistaking The Debate Society’s unique blend of social commentary and underlying dread. In addition, the 1980s milieu forces an intimacy that the introduction of cell phones and multi-channel cable stations would have easily marred (plus the references to MCI, SKIDZ, and Howard Jones are pretty fun).
Bos and Thureen are po-faced delights, but it?s the more straitlaced performers who steal the show. Lowell, the handsome, square-jawed young actor best known to Veronica Mars and Private Practice fans, aces his first major NYC stage production, giving Bo an undercurrent of tangible sadness that makes him far more than the himbo brat he initially seems; his fans will also be chuffed to know that he wears nothing but swim trunks for half of the play. And Friedman (who costarred with Bos in Will Eno?s excellent mindbender The Open House last season, also directed by Butler) remains a marvel at human comedy; there’s scarcely a new play mounted in the last two decades that this tremendous character performer hasn’t made better. He’s a major reason that Jacuzzi is as effervescent as those jet bubbles that swirl mere inches from your eyes. B+