Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Jacuzzian actual working in-home hot tubsits right in the middle of the playing area at Dark & Stormy's home for this production in picturesque downtown Stillwater. At different points in the ninety-minute (sans intermission) play, all of the four characters, in different combinations, soak in its luxuriant warmth, but that isn't what Jacuzzi is about. The whirlpool hot tubwhether it is an actual Jacuzzi brand or not is moot, as the word has become a proxy for any and all of these amenities, just as Kleenex has become a proxy for all facial tissuesserves as a metaphor, the spot where all of the characters are on equal footing, protected by no more than a swimsuit, erasing class and occupational barriers, and allowing whoever has the most smarts to get the upper hand.
If not about the pleasures of a hot tub soak, what is Jacuzzi about? Basically, it illustrates the ease with which people can be duped, especially self-absorbed people who believe they are astute observers of human nature, when they mainly are observing their own eccentricities. The play takes place in 1991 and is set in a comfortably rustic private ski chalet in Colorado. It opens with Derrick and Helene enjoying the hot tub, both reading the same book and, in bits and pieces of conversation, making it clear that this is not their home. From what we can glean, they may be caretakers, they may be renters there for a few days, or they may be intruders. A baffling message on the phone answering machine adds to the uncertainties as to just what is going on, though there is a definite vibe that says "up to no good."
Some possibilities are eliminated and others open up when 26-year-old Bo bounds in unexpectedly. Bo's father got to keep the house when his parents' divorced about eight years ago and now Bo has arrived, one day early, for a visit with his dad. The two have been estranged and have not seen each other for a very long time, while Bo bounced from college to college and one European misadventure to another. Robert, Bo's father, coerced his son to join him at their mountain home for Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, a local event featuring a father-son ski race, with costumes encouraged.
Robert arrives the next morning and sparks immediately fly between father and son. At this juncture it appears that Helene and Derrick were there to install the newly acquired Jacuzzi and get the shuttered house ready for its owner to take command. Robert generates more tasks that need to be completed and persuades Helene and Derrick to stay on, as much to serve as a buffer between the sparring father and son as to actually accomplish real work. But as Helene and Derrick continuously shape shift from one role to another, we still wonder what their game is, and how it will play out.
Jacuzzi was written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and further developed by Oliver Butler, who directed its 2014 premiere Off-Broadway. The three are co-artistic directors of The Debate Society, a play development collaborative based in Brooklyn. Indeed, a sense of being developed by a team of collaborators rather than a single playwright comes across in Jacuzzi. Now that might be the downfall of some plays, but here it serves the play well, offering shifting perspectives and split-second changes of tone, from satiric to menacing and, for one or two moments, touching. The parts work together well, like pieces of a puzzle that may be made of different materials but nonetheless form an beguiling whole.
Matt Anderson, who directed Dark & Stormy's murderously dark comedy Norwegians takes on that assignment for Jacuzzi and maintains a constant tension, as new information slips out from each of the characters, changing the dynamics among them again and again. It becomes good sport to keep up, drawing the audience by tickling both our sense of humor and our inner detective.
Helene and Derrick remain enigmas, and the performances by Sara Marsh and Darius Dotch, respectively, make these characters appealing even as we suspect them of having done, or planning to do, foul, possibly horrible deeds. Marsh is especially slick with deadpan responses to the preposterous goings on between Robert and Bo, while Dotch uses a veneer of steadiness to reassure Robert, making it all the easier to blindside him. Their rapport as a couple gives authenticity to the understanding that this pair has pulled some fast ones before, and know exactly what they're doing.
Paul LaNave is terrific as Bo, a tortured adolescent in the body of a 26-year-old man. LaNave milks comedy out of his scorn for his father and his humiliated sense of himself. In spite of the fact that Bo clearly needs to grow up, LaNave manages to draw sympathy for his character. Part of the credit for that goes to Clint Allen, as Robert, the epitome of a man who prides himself as being a progressive, nurturing father while cluelessly shredding his son's self-esteem. The bitter disputes between Bo and Robert come across as over the top, and yet that is exactly what happens among family members who refuse to take their share of responsibility for the problems they face.
I have to give a shout out to Mark Benninghofen for the very short but spot-on voiceover delivery of that unsettling phone message early on. He totally nails the way a guy in those shoes sounds.
The playing area is dominated by that Jacuzzi, with various objects on the walls and scattered about to affirm that this place is a ski lodge. An actual window in the back wall of the stage area looks out on the retaining wall holding back the bluffs that embrace the St. Croix River Valley, a passable facsimile of a Colorado mountainside. All design and technical elements work well to serve the needs of the play and this production, with a broad wink to costume designer Mel Day for dressing Helene in a cropped DARE T-shirt (DARE referring to a now discredited drug resistance education program much in favor thirty years ago).
Stillwater makes a great location for Jacuzzi. Its historic Main Street, with restaurants and smart shops, could easily serve as the heart of a Colorado ski resort town, but only twenty-five minutes from Saint Paul. Jacuzzi is great fun, both for its sharply etched comedy and as a puzzle-mystery that begs its audience to dig in deep and unravel the secrets it is keeping. And nobody mounts this kind of theater better than Dark & Stormy Productions.
Jacuzzi runs through December 19, 2021, at 450 Main Street North, Stillwater MN. Tickets: $39.00, under age 25 tickets: $25.00. For tickets call 612-401-4506 or go to www.darkstormy.org.
Playwright: Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, further developed by Oliver Butler and The Debate Society; Director: Matt Anderson; Costume Design: Mel Day; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; SFX Makeup: Crist Ballas; Technical and Design Consultant: Michael James; Stage Manager: Ashley Roper; Producer: Sara Marsh
Cast: Clint Allen (Robert), Mark Benninghofen (voiceover), Beth Chaplin (voiceover), Darius Dotch (Erik), Paul LaNave (Bo), Sara Marsh (Helene).