Please note. This review contains possible spoilers.
With recent hits like Joshua Harmon’s ‘Bad Jews’ firmly under its belt, St. Kilda’s Alex Theatre complex is quickly becoming the go – to venue for catching new and exciting Off Broadway and Off – Off Broadway work.
‘Jacuzzi’ is a smart four hander, created by the U.S. trio of Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen and Oliver Butler. (It should be noted that Bos and Thureen also starred in the premiere production).
Set almost twenty – five years ago, the play covers several claustrophobic days one ski season inside a remote mountain chalet. Billed as a gripping deadpan psychological thriller, ‘Jacuzzi’ made its international debut at the ARS Nova in New York City only late last year.
Presented by 3 Big Men Productions, in bringing the show here, the Melbourne – based team changed three small yet specific details.
Firstly, ARS Nova ran the one hundred minute show uninterrupted. (The argument for maintaining or breaking flow could be made either way. Although, the twenty – minute interval between acts at the Alex certainly served as a prime chance for discussion on opening night.)
Secondly, perhaps allowing local audiences to connect more fully with the story, the location has been switched from Aspen, Colorado in the United States to Mt Buller in Victoria.
The date however, winter of 1991, remains the same.
(Coincidentally, two headline – grabbing serial killings, the Belanglo State Forest Backpacker disappearances and Snowtown’s bodies-in-a-barrel murders were happening in Australia at exactly the same time.)
Thirdly, the ARS Nova’s performance space is apparently quite long and narrow. For the Alex, “Jacuzzi” is set up as theatre in the round, allowing audiences to be front and centre with the action. (For those seated in the first row, some words of warning. You may get splashed!)
Similar to haunting films like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ (which also started life as a play), Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr Ripley, Paul Schrader’s ‘The Comfort of Strangers’, Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave” or George Sluizer ‘The Vanishing’, don’t be fooled for one second by ‘Jacuzzi’s’ deceptively laconic atmosphere. By giving the play one’s full attention, viewers will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
However, the authors aren’t making this pay off easy, and seem to be taking sadistic pleasure in keeping us guessing. Bos, Thureen and Oliver sprinkle red herrings and clues-a-plenty with strategic glee over a handful of extended linear episodes.
Further, without giving too much away, ‘Jacuzzi’ features two seemingly unrelated narratives at work.
How they ultimately meet and intertwine, form both an electrifying punch line and sinister aftermath. This wicked confidence game stays in mind long after the final lights come up.
“Jacuzzi” opens with a couple (Emma Jo McKay & Wesley Forke) peacefully relaxing in a hot tub. How and why they are there isn’t immediately clear.
Soon appearing at the front door, a young man (Doug Lyons) interrupts their solitude. We quickly learn that his estranged father (Darren Mort) owns the property, and is shortly due to join him. Dad, it seems, desperately wants to reconnect, even to the point of paying for his son’s company.
For much of the running time, the pair exchange and expose a multitude of painful family secrets. The father is also the victor in a messy divorce, winning the resort property from his wife’s family. Installing the hot tub indoors seals the deal, as it was an expensive frivolity his former partner would never allow during their relationship.
Hovering calmly in the background, the mysterious couple ingratiate themselves with the father and son. Perhaps a little too caught up in their own family situation to see what is actually happening to them, this is where the real fun begins.
Jean Russell’s direction keeps viewers guessing and the action moving. In her charge, all four actors give their characters a clear and detailed specificity.
Free from the shackles of marriage, Robert, (Mort) is an overgrown puppy. Chatty and playful, he is determined to make up for lost time with his son.
Bo (Lyons), sullen and guarded, gradually accepts his father’s support, and opens up to him.
Derek/Eric (Forke) hides real menace beneath a forced, smiling veneer.
Lastly Helene (McKay), the wiry ringleader, is an entitled enigma. Always thinking one – step head, her every action is smoothly calculated.
On the technical front, lighting by Mark MacDowell and Fiona Miller is both colour – coded and theatrical. Combined with Jeffrey Miceli’s audio, they allow seamless transitions between scenes.
Rachel Kertes’ costume choices help to define each character and their working or upper class background, too.
Richard Perdriau’s set design adds the right degree of realism. Pine furnishing, expensive period appliances and even a moose head, immediately capture the affluent holiday house mood.
An actual working Jacuzzi is the show’s dazzling centerpiece.
Reinforcing moments of high farce and drama in equal doses, its presence (like the helicopter in “Miss Saigon” or the chandelier in “Phantom of the Opera”) cements the play’s authenticity, and is a spectacular touch.
If you’re in the mood for an original dark comedy, ‘Jacuzzi’ will be making waves until October 24.