The stage at Off Broadway’s Ars Nova is so long and narrow, there’s hardly room to swing a cat. So it might seem absurd to install a fully functioning hot tub as the centerpiece of the set for “Jacuzzi.” Luckily, theater of the absurd happens to be the aesthetic of The Debate Society, the creatively inventive company currently in residence at Ars Nova. So that ridiculous hot tub plays a key role in this mysterious drama written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen — who also spend a lot of time soaking in the tub.
Owning a Jacuzzi was a pretty big deal in 1991, almost as big a deal as having your own ski chalet at the top of a mountain in Colorado. Which is where we find a woman who calls herself Helene (Bos) and a man who calls himself Derek (Thureen) when this offbeat play opens. Out of place in such a posh resort setting, this scruffy couple appear to be the local caretakers of the ski lodge, stealing a bit of aquatic relaxation after clearing the trails and opening the house for the rich guy who owns it and is due to arrive the next day for a father-son ski race.
Or maybe not. Bos has a wonderfully expressive face, and there’s something vaguely disquieting about the knowing glances Helene exchanges with Derek, who looks like a long-haired, spaced-out hippie in Thureen’s suspiciously mellow performance. And some warning signal definitely passes between them when a lone skier in stylishly gaudy gear suddenly appears outside the sliding glass door in the middle of a snowstorm.
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The ostentatiously outfitted skier, whose name is Bo and is played by the effortlessly appealing Chris Lowell (“The Help” and “Veronica Mars”), turns out to be the son of the chalet owner. Like a lot of spoiled rich kids of his generation, Bo doesn’t quite know how to relate to the working-class peons who make his entitled lifestyle possible. (“I had an internship once,” he offers, in a show of solidarity.)
Bo has arrived a day early for the father-son ski race and is embarrassed to have caught the help goofing off. But he soon claims a seat in the hot tub, and before long, he’s slugging back daddy’s good brandy and bitching about how his parents, both child psychologists, mistreated him by making him the guinea pig for the experimental studies that made them rich.
“You guys are great!” he says, showing his gratitude for being accepted by these salt-of-the-earth locals. “What’s ours is yours, man,” Derek says, offering him a soda from his father’s well-stocked larder.
The scribes don’t exactly make it easy for us to figure out what Helene and Derek, if that’s really their names, have in mind for this screwed-up rich kid, who admits to having done some really bad things in his aimless life. But Oliver Butler, the third member of The Debate Society, who developed and directed the production, sets a slow, killing pace appropriate to a Japanese horror movie, and by bedtime, the tension is off the charts.
Next day bright and early, daddy, a/k/a Robert Elder, is dropped off by a helicopter and in the welcome person of Peter Friedman. The wonderfully watchable Friedman is a seasoned veteran of downtown theater (in Will Eno’s “The Open House,” Amy Herzog’s “After the Revolution,” et al), so he’s got the style down cold. The elder Elder proves to be every bit as credulous as his son, so accustomed to the obsequious loyalty of the hired help that he never doubts their narrative or questions their intentions.
After this artful buildup to what promises to be some kind of bloody brawl between the social classes, the scribes gradually shift focus to the real battle going on here — the father-son conflict between Robert and Bo.
For a psychologist, Robert is incredibly insensitive to people’s feelings. He’s a real horse’s ass around those people he considers his personal servants, assuming them to feel privileged to work for such a great, down-to-earth guy. “You are getting to be my little nurse, and the tall guy is my little handyman,” he says to Helene, flashing a big grin.
But this horse’s ass is really hurting, which gives Friedman something solid to work with. The poor guy is in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from his wife, his work is suffering, and he can’t understand why his son hates him. The only thing that gives this friendless man a sense of satisfaction are the material possessions he’s acquired — like that tacky hot tub.
Bo is plenty sensitive, but only to his own feelings. Born into comfort and wealth, he’s acquired a massive sense of entitlement that makes him treat people like dirt. Huge acting challenge that it must be, Lowell manages to find in this monstrous narcissist the lonely little boy who can have everything his heart desires, except the unconditional love of his selfish parents.
Standing off to the side and watching this pathetic father/son drama, Helene and Derek smile a lot, that enigmatic smile that people smile when they’re secretly making fun of you. Or getting ready to rob you blind.
Given your choice, which one would you kill?