A working on stage hot tub is, predictably, the centerpiece of the Debate Society’s latest play, Jacuzzi, now running at Ars Nova in a production directed by Oliver Butler. Set in a comfy house in a Colorado ski resort town in the ’90s (replete with kitschy period detail thanks to set designer Laura Jellinek), the play opens as a man and a woman, Helene and Derek, are relaxing in the jacuzzi reading Making Bobby Robert, a book by the house’s owner, an author of self-help books who’s taken control of the place in a divorce settlement.
A cryptic voicemail at the top of the play seems to suggest that the man and woman in the tub might be vacationers. Soon, a snowmobile pulls up and a young man named Bo enters the scene, apparently disrupting their evening. The couple allows Bo to stay and even to join them in the jacuzzi, where they share a bottle of wine and exchange stories. In the morning, however, when homeowner Robert returns, it’s revealed that Helene and Derek are actually the hired help, having been tasked with fixing up the house.
Though they’re set to leave the following day, congenial Robert convinces them to stay — and to continue to work for him. Over the course of the rest of the weekend, Helene and Derek grow increasingly entangled, both professionally and personally, with Robert and Bo as father and son prepare for an epic ski race that has become a local tradition.
The tone of the piece darkens as the evening progresses; the Debate Society are all about heightening reality and holding up a light to the quirks (and brokenness) of its subjects, and the four damaged souls at the heart of Jacuzzi are no exception. Narration from Helene punctuates the transitions between some scenes, adding an increasingly twisted, ominous tone to the proceedings. The show’s creators succeed most by subverting audience expectations; though the play’s plot is secondary, shifts in characterization, mood, and lighting (by Bradley King), cue our perceptions with a masterful sense of dramatic control.
The acting on display is also top-notch. Debate Society company members Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, who also wrote the play, portray Helene and Derek as quirky worker bees, devoted to the task of revamping the house despite harboring something a little more cracked beneath the surface. Theatre stalwart Peter Friedman brings a sense of world-weary middle-age disappointment to the role of Robert that perfectly complements Chris Lowell’s uppity Bo.
In the confines of Ars Nova’s intimate space, it’s easy to get caught up (quickly) in the mystery of these seemingly ordinary lives. Oliver Butler’s steady pacing, Bos and Thureen’s strong script, and a quartet of finely tuned performances converge to keep an audience hooked throughout what is essentially a no-frills evening at the theatre. There’s any anything-can-happen energy charged through the whole affair that makes the viewer, typically passive, want to take a dip.