Written by Hannah Bos & Paul Thureen
Directed by Oliver Butler
Despite its cozy appearance, all is clearly not well at the Marshall family’s Colorado ski chalet. For starters, the property’s rental agency keeps leaving messages apologizing for the disappearance of Helene: the employee who was supposed to taking care of the premises. And yet somehow there’s a “Helene” (Hanna Bos), basking blithely in the eponymous hot tub with her boyfriend “Erik” (Paul Thureen). Who are these two impostors, and what have they done with the real Helene?
Fortunately for the devious duo, neither the cottage’s wealthy owner Robert (Peter Friedman) nor his pampered son Bo (Chris Lowell) asks too many questions. Deeply self-absorbed, both have their own problems to solve. Robert is a quintessential Baby Boomer, wearied by a journey from sex-and-drugs hippiedom to New Age childrearing and finally the jet-set overindulgence of 1980’s and early 90’s. He now needs to redefine himself yet again as he goes through a bitter divorce from Bo’s mother. Bo, his maturity stunted by his parents’ need to chronicle his childhood in a series of pop-psych bestsellers, has fruitlessly wandered the world in an effort to find himself. Things took a bad turn in Europe and now he’s facing possible criminal prosecution. After years of sparse contact, the two men attempt to repair their relationship. Will cunning Helene and enigmatic Erik serve as catalysts for the father-son reconciliation? Or have they got something more sinister in mind?
The atmosphere is pregnant with the possibility of sex and violence, and yet incipient plot points often evaporate as quickly as hot tub bubbles. In one particularly tense moment, for example, vulnerable Robert and Bo sit heedlessly in the warm water while Helene and Erik enter the room at the slow pace of panthers stalking their prey. Affixed to their faces are macabre Papier-mâché masks left over from one of Bo’s boyhood birthday parties. It’s a creepy tableau, cuing the audience to think it’s time for the climactic bloodbath. What we get instead is some good-natured clowning and a group photo.
So it goes throughout most of the evening: tension builds, seethes, and then subsides into silliness. And what it’s all about is never clarified. We learn through voiceover journal entries that Erik and Helene have indeed killed and buried the real caretaker. Yet their murderous, larcenous instincts are never turned on Bo and Robert. Instead the two miscreants seem content to smirk at their rich-and-clueless hosts as if the whole thing were an episode of a goofy reality show. Robert and Bo, who somehow never become suspicious of their newfound friends, give the young couple nothing much to push against.
As unfocused as it is, at least JACUZZI is never boring. The dialogue flows and the characters, even at their most narcissistic, have a quirky charm. The actors nimbly embody their archetypes and director Oliver Butler keeps the timing crisp and the entrances and exits believable. Laura Jellinek’s scenic design neatly evokes a time of VCR’s and answering machines, and puts a refreshing spin on the tradition of one-room naturalism. Built wide from left to right and shallow from upstage to down, the set frames the action with a comic strip-like visual pop that enhances the script’s oddball humor.
Despite these inspired touches, though, the show suffers from dramaturgical lopsidedness. The stakes are clear in the father-son dynamic, but the other two members of the quartet are in need of further development.
JACUZZI continues through November 15 at ARS NOVA, 511 West 54th Street, New York NY 10019. Tickets https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/dept/305/1414864724439