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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
That monologue, interrupted only occasionally by Ray and his Coach (Peter Jay Fernandez), sets in motion the moral dilemma that propels Lucas Hnath's gripping new play. That dilemma revolves around the discovery of a bag of drugs at the swim club, reports of which to the Olympics authorities could derail Ray's career and also his brother's ambitions to become a sports manager.
But while Red Speedo seems to be about the much publicized issue of athletes use of performance enhancing drugs, Hnath has once again used a vivid setting to create characters caught up in issues faced by everyone. As his terrific The Christians (review link below) was as much if not more about the power of words and the fallout of communication, so the drug addiction propelling Red Speedo's characters is success as defined by a society that equates everything good with money.
As impressively directed by newcomer to New York Lileana Blain-Cruz, strikingly designed and powerfully performed, the plot moves forward with a series of scenes, each of which focuses on one character's rationale for the moral compromises made. Along with their arguments they reveal that there's more than meets the eye to their seemingly obvious types— the sleazy lawyer willing to bend the law, the dumb jock, the tough but true to the rules coach).
The play's pivotal character is Hnath's most remarkable creation and as played by Alex Breaux, the play's most unforgettably riveting performance. Breaux plays dumb to perfection and just as effectively reveals Ray to be pretty smart about self promotion and justifying his use of drugs (no, I'm not being a spoiler here, he admits that the discovered drugs were his). He even manages to be quite funny as he excuses his drugging as a form of affirmative action for the disadvantaged for which he qualifies due to his lack of education and no future except for this one shot at the gold ring. The hideous sea serpent that covers his entire back underscores his self-promotional savvy. As he explains it "Just thought it would be good for publicity and stuff,because we all kinda look the same when we swim." Breaux deserves extra bravos for meeting the physical challenge of spending the entire 80 minutes in those tiny Speedo trunks and actually swimming several laps in set designer Riccardo Hernandez's unheated pool (I checked this out with someone at the box office). That pool is a character in its own right.
Lucas Caleb Rooney deftly portrays the more educated big brother's dual motives to be his brother's protector and champion but also to further his own career. The way he moves from breaking one rule to increasingly immoral actions is presents us with one of the most troubling questions the play poses: How far into the depths is cheating a little when we feel that the game is already rigged against us likely to take us.
The playwright doesn't let off the Coach. As played by Peter Jay Fernandez he's tough and staunchly committed to correctness. But the temptation of having nurtured an Olympic champion is too much to resist a long shot chance to clean up Ray's fall from grace to his own advantage.
Lydia (Zoë Winters), the play's fourth and only female character makes the most of her single scene. She adds yet another view of the easy drift into immorality in today's society. Lydia is a sports therapist and Ray's ex-girlfriend whose arrest in connection with her own involvement in a drug-dealing has put her into the world of the permanently unemployed.
Unlike the Downton Abbey finale which I saw right after my matinee at New York Theatre Workshop, there's no happy ending for any of Hnath's people. Instead it ends with a fight, which as engineered by Thomas Shall, is as brutal and bloody as anything I've seen on any stage in a while. Exemplary a demonstrion of stage violence as this is, it does make for an ambiguous ending. But then that's the idea here, to leave us figuring out how to avoid crossing the line between commendable and shallow ambition and reprehensible behavior.
Red Speedo isn't quite as unique a The Christians but it once again confirms Mr. Hnath as a distinctive new voice in the theater. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.
Links to other review Hnath productions reviewed at Curtainup:
Red Speedo in Philadelphia