In preparation for The Debate Society’s new play Jacuzzi, I wrote a very long thing about the different narrative effects and meanings water has had in all of their plays. I was delighted to find that the fully functionally hot tub that is the centerpiece of this new production actually represents something very simple and obvious: wealth and status.
Presented as the culmination of the company’s three-year residency with Ars Nova, Jacuzzi takes place at the Colorado ski chalet of a wealthy author named Robert Marshall, who is played by Peter Friedman. This idyllic vacation spot is only accessible by helicopter, snow mobile, or 5-mile hike, and has just recently been acquisitioned from Robert’s ex-wife by his attorneys. The expensively decorated mountain home has been in Robert’s ex-wife’s family for generations, thus making it the crown jewel in their particularly nasty divorce settlement. To celebrate what he sees as a momentous victory, Robert has installed an aquamarine hot tub right next to the entrance – something his wife would have never gone for.
“Fuck you, Jackie,” Robert says when he first lays eyes on the hot tub.
It’s an easy feeling to relate to – there is more than a little “fuck you” in the notion of putting a working hot tub on stage for a play; a certain thumbing of the nose at convention that has become synonymous with the Society’s work. The delight that bubbles up as you see a new play from this company surely originates in their steadfast commitment to these brazen ideas and their thorough execution of them. I mentioned before that this play takes place in an expensively decorated ski chalet. The story is compelling enough; any other company would have surely been content to merely suggest a chalet as economically as possible. Not the Debate Society. No, Laura Jellinek’s set is as comprehensive a ski chalet as it can be within the Ars Nova space: solid looking wood beams, convincing 1980s knick-knacks (Noah Mease is credited with prop design), and sliding doors that open with a puff of mist to reveal a few feet of snow on the patio outside.
The ambiance is completed by the interplay between the set and Bradley King’s crisp lighting design, which blinks back and forth between naturalism and impressionism, usually in time with sound designer M.L. Dogg’s funky soundtrack. The shimmer of the underwater Jacuzzi light on the sloped wood panel ceiling is simply gorgeous; like a blue ghost fluttering in the wind. I must say, I was struck by how long and horizontal the set is – there is practically no front to back depth to the playing area, which could have made staging a challenge. But director/developer Oliver Butler and the company know what they are doing. They use the confined space and straight lines to maximum effect, accentuating the feeling that you too are trapped in a small cabin with strange people you can never fully get a bead on.
Those strangers would be Helene and Erik – or was it Derick? – who Robert has hired to help oversee the installation of the hot tub and the keeping of the grounds while he was away. Within the first couple of scenes, however, it becomes apparent that Helene and Erik, who are played by Society playwrights/performers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, are in fact not the people Robert hired, but rather a pair of amoral drifters who have been posing as the groundskeepers and squatting at the cabin for an indeterminate amount of time. Their intentions – like everything else in this magnificently elusive play – are never crystal clear. It seems like their vague intention might have been to merely sell off the valuable baubles that Robert’s ex-wife left around the cabin, but the details surrounding the ousting of the actual groundskeeper sound more and more ominous, suggesting that Helene and Erik are capable of far worse than petty theft. Having charmed Robert and to a lesser degree his estranged son Bo (played soulfully by Chris Lowell), Helene and Erik end up crashing this awkward father/son weekend to help pack up said baubles to be shipped off to the ex-wife on Monday.
What follows is not so much a thriller as a thrilling representation of discreet sociopathy in action. It sounds simple but proves utterly enthralling (if a little sadistic) to watch as Helene and Erik so ably play Robert and Bo by bathing them in disingenuous kindness or to watch them, towards the end, get choked on layers upon layers of their own hasty lies. Occasionally, Thureen and Bos will share a silent look upon reaching an unforeseen boundary of their scam, and their blank, wordless communication as they try to come up with a new plan makes the skin crawl. Clearly these two shysters – like Thureen and Bos, who are just tremendous here – have been doing this together for a long time.
In some ways, Helene and Erik are very much in love. Bo actually arrives at the cabin first, fresh off a European walkabout that seems to have gone south in Romania. After a few drunken hours in the hot tub, Bo smells Helene’s hair and tries to kiss her – maneuvers that elicit, quick but restrained physical retaliation from Erik. Later, when Robert accidentally intercepts a phone call that might blow Helene and Erik’s cover, Erik quickly coughs up a story about why Robert shouldn’t believe the caller because he was once a creep to Helene, citing specifically that the guy had smelled her hair and tried to kiss her. It’s a frightening little detail, the kind that makes you shudder. At this moment we learn that these are not empty pathological lies but rather convincing ones, born in places of true anger and spite. Erik and Helene clearly possess a deep affinity for the trappings of wealth that they work hard to steal and a deep resentment of the people like Bo, who feel entitled to those things by birth. The script has a lot of fun with this dichotomy in its extremes. Erik and Helene may have literally killed someone for a chance to stay at Robert’s chalet for a while; Robert had to pay Bo to get him to come for a weekend.
The penultimate scene at last finds all four characters in the roiling tub together. Bo, though foppish and petulant, has to some extent figured out what Erik and Helene are up to. Erik and Helene have figured out that the jig is up. It’s a marvelously patient scene, buoyed by Friedman and Lowell’s naturalistic recounting of a few memories from Bo’s childhood. In private moments, Helene fishes information out of both Robert and Bo and then uses it to make each of them feel guilty for their fractured relationship. During all this Bos’ eyes positively glimmer in the dim light, alive with mischief and dark potential.
And yet director Butler and the performers never work the slow-burn menace of Helene and Erik in predictable ways. It’s simply always there, glowing faint orange behind their icy smiles, like the dim embers of the joints the characters smoke just outside the frosted glass of the sliding door. The tension culminates during a bizarre sequence in which Erik and Helene enter wearing the paper masks that Bo and his friends made as children. In that moment it is clear that the telegraphed terror of violence will come to fruition; that the Jacuzzi of privilege will indeed froth over with blood. Whether that does in fact happen or how it goes down is not for me to say here.
It is evidence of the abundant nature of the Debate Society’s art that what does happen at the end of Jacuzzi happens in a way that teems with that specific, irreplaceable pulse of matter-of-fact oddity that is the company’s hallmark. Like the watery Jacuzzi light on the ceiling, like the hate in Helene’s eyes, it shimmers with glorious uncertainty.
Jacuzzi runs through November 1st at Ars Nova. Tickets are available at http://arsnovanyc.com/
For more information on The Debate Society visit http://thedebatesociety.org/