In the best thrillers, the things that are left unsaid and unseen are far scarier than anything revealed onstage. That is particularly true in The Debate Society's Jacuzzi, which is making its world premiere at Ars Nova. This mysterious theatrical striptease will haunt your thoughts for days after you leave the theater.
The play takes place in a well-appointed ski chalet in a remote part of Colorado circa 1991. Scenic designer Laura Jellinek has built the living room along one of the long walls of the theater, creating a very wide playing space and allowing for life-size opulence. Knickknacks adorn the slanted walls. Antique snowshoes are mounted above a credenza. A fake fireplace occupies center stage. A large working Jacuzzi dominates the space between the fireplace and the sliding glass doors that lead to the winter wonderland outside.
This is where we find Helene (Hannah Bos) and Erik (Paul Thureen), soaking in the water as they attentively read a parenting book called Making Bobby Robert by Jackie and Robert Elder. Suddenly, the book's subject, Bo Elder (Chris Lowell) walks into the house wearing a full ski suit. This is his parents' vacation home and he didn't expect there to be any renters. It's bitterly cold outside, so Helene and Erik invite him to stay. It's the least they could do. After all, they've just spent the day reading about the most embarrassing episodes of his childhood.
Bo's mom and dad (both child psychologists) documented his life and turned it into a best seller. They're now divorced and Robert (Peter Friedman) has just won the chalet in the settlement. He helicopters onto the mountain like a triumphant general, listening to his Walkman and looking very pleased with himself.
Robert is under the impression that Helene and Erik are the contractors he hired to install the Jacuzzi and spruce up the house. They do nothing to disavow him of that notion, and instead get to work making themselves useful. But didn't they just imply to Bo that they were renters? And didn't the guy from the rental agency leave a message on the answering machine saying something about a "Helene Douglass" being missing? And is Helene's companion named Erik or Derek? He's given one name to Bo and another to Robert.
These are just a few of the questions that will flash across your mind as you watch this inscrutable play unfold. Coauthors Bos and Thureen roll out their story with the precision of a particularly good mystery novelist. Director Oliver Butler (the third member of The Debate Society, along with Bos and Thureen) has a Hitchcockian attention to detail, ensuring that the play is always two steps ahead of the audience. Nothing is predictable in this supremely disorienting journey.
The performances add to that effect. Bos and Thureen have a deeply unsettling stage presence together. She has the maniacal grin of a sociopath. He has the icy stoicism of a serial killer. This is in sharp contrast to the credulous child psychologist and his moody adult son, now living in a state of suspended adolescence. Lowell and Friedman give a realistic portrayal of a strained father-son relationship, in which cash has become the poisonous adhesive holding the family together.
At one point, Robert and Bo quarrel in the living room while Helene and Erik have a quick and snippy argument in the kitchen, unseen by the audience. There's something very wrong with this situation, but Robert and Bo ignore it: They're just too wrapped up in their own drama to notice.
The end result is a well-mannered thriller that will keep you guessing. Jacuzzi slowly turns up the heat until the audience is in boiling water without even noticing. This is an ideal Halloween outing for those looking for something more quietly disturbing than your typical fright fest.