The Debate Society’s new play at Ars Nova takes on family secrets in a ’70s ski lodge.
Photo by Ben Arons
"What if we wrote a play that takes place in a jacuzzi?" From the second you walk into Ars Nova and glimpse the stunning set of The Debate Society's Jacuzzi, its crowning jewel a fully functional hot tub, you realize that this is not a metaphor. But as much fun as it is to watch the actors strip down into swimsuits and clamber in and out of the water, this play has far more lurking just below the surface.
Jacuzzi opens on Helene and Derek, a pair of renters enjoying the hot tub in their Colorado ski lodge and the remnants of the owner's life they can dig up. Before long, the son of the home's owner, Bo, shows up, and before long their awkward interactions dissolve into the intimacy of drunken late-night jacuzzi sessions. But the next morning, everything has changed, and much to Bo's surprise Helene and Erik, as he is now calling himself, are the contractors renovating his newly divorced father's house, and everything from the previous night seems like a dream.
This is a play about misplaced expectations, and about who we are to different people. It starts slowly, but with Robert's arrival the piece picks up steam, and soon after you need to be paying extremely close attention to catch every discrepancy in the story, every little bit that doesn't fit. There is a game being played here, but why and at whose expense?
It is fascinating how quickly these two sets of strangers become intimate, and we learn a lifetime of family history (true or not) over the course of a weekend. Peter Friedman as Bo's father Robert is a larger-than-life persona, happy to strip down to his boxers in front of absolute strangers, while Chris Lowell plays his bratty, born-rich 26-year-old son to irritating but relatable perfection. It's a criticism of class privilege but not really an indictment, a slice of life that shows the problems that every family can have.
Co-writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen play the "contractors" Helene and Erik with an aura of mystery that keeps drawing you in, and Helene is by far the most intriguing and in-depth character of the play. Her voiceover narration between the scenes provides structure to the piece, though it does feel a bit out of place in the otherwise naturalistic setting.
The set and costuming of Jacuzzi is phenomenal, bringing a 1970s Colorado ski town to life in all its technicolor glory. The living room of the lodge is filled to the brim with little trinkets, each with a specific meaning unearthed as it is taken down and packed away to be sent to Robert's now ex-wife. As the trappings of wealth and family are stripped away, what remains are the people, with their hysterical swimsuits and snowsuits, and the stories they tell.
The play moves between utterly hilarious and eerie, with violence simmering just below the surface every time we glimpse Helene's arm cast or the easily breakable pieces of artwork. Though the con is slowly revealed throughout, I still don't believe I understood all of the secrets and motivations by the end, and it would take absolute attention to every mumbled drunken comment from the second the lights come up to grasp every detail of Jacuzzi. But if there is anything this play teaches, it is this: when does the truth actually matter?
The Debate Society is an extraordinary group of artists, and Jacuzzi is an innovative new work, a must-see for anyone interested in how New York's Off-Broadway scene is growing. It plays at Ars Nova through November 1. For more information, check out their website.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.