March 8th, 2016
Yes—there’s really a pool on stage at Red Speedo, the new play by Lucas Hnath (The Christians) at the New York Theatre Workshop through March 27. The pool is certainly an achievement for scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez, since it immediately places the audience in the natatorium where swimming stud Ray (Alex Breaux) awaits the following day’s Olympic trials.
But the lane of serene blue water that spans the forestage stands in stark contrast to the murky ethical dilemmas that Hnath examines. Ray’s future as an Olympic swimmer and Speedo-sponsored star are threatened by a dependence on performance-enhancing drugs; a brother whose financial well-being is inextricably tied to Ray’s success; an ex-girlfriend whom he desperately wants to marry; and a coach who is also looking for his piece of the glory.
Ray’s brother, Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), is a lawyer who yearns to quit his job and play full-time agent to his younger sibling. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get his cut from the Speedo deal he has negotiated—even if it means turning a blind eye to Ray’s reliance on HCG—a synthetic testosterone classified as a performance-enhancing drug.
Ray’s ex-girlfriend Lydia (Zoë Winters) is bitter and angry after losing her license to practice sports psychology when she dabbled in the realm of pharmaceuticals. Peter helped get her convicted after speaking to the prosecution and relaying private information.
Ray’s coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) tries to take the ethical high road when he discovers what he believes are another swimmer’s drugs in his office refrigerator. But when he realizes they belong to his star pupil, he quickly changes his tune.
Then there’s Breaux as the athlete himself. The actor does a wonderful job portraying a character with more depth than meets the eye. Though Ray appears to be unintelligent and inept at grasping complex scenarios, it’s quickly evident that he’s not as dumb as he seems. Even his hideously large back and leg tattoo of a sea serpent is his own stroke of quasi-genius: “Just thought it would be good for publicity and stuff, because we all kinda look the same when we swim, because we all have goggles and swim caps, so I thought it would be a good idea to make myself really easy to spot, so like when I’m swimming, and they have the camera overhead watching us swim, it’s really easy to know which one I am, and everyone will be like ‘Whoa, who’s that guy with the sea serpent, he’s awesome.’” He is scared to fail and scared of what it will take to win, which results in his saying to Peter, Lydia and Coach exactly what each wants to hear—even if it isn’t true. But even though he’s a pawn in their endgames, he’s playing them too.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz keeps Hnath’s script moving quickly, though the snappy, rapid-fire dialogue sometimes seems forced. It’s unclear if the choppiness is due to directing or acting choices. The script really soars when each character has a longer chance to speak—granting the audience a look inside their psyches. The air horn signifying changes in scene, however, does little to aid the audience, aside from causing them to jump.
For the most part, Rooney makes Peter deliciously deplorable. And while the rest of the cast hold their own, there’s nothing spectacular about their characters. What is spectacular is a climactic fight scene between Peter and Ray, choreographed by Thomas Schall, that takes full advantage of Hernandez’s set.
Hnath’s writing leaves no clear protagonist and offers no ethical calls throughout the 80-minute intermission-less production. Rather, he leaves the audience to ponder that all-too-gray area between right and wrong, good and bad.
Lucas Hnath’sRed Speedo plays through April 3 at the New York Theatre Workshop (79 East Fourth St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Matinees are Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at (212) 780-9037 or visiting nytw.org.