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There’s plenty of impressive stagecraft on display in the New York Theatre Workshop production of Lucas Hnath’s new play about an Olympic-caliber competitive swimmer. There’s an actual pool — a glassed-in tank — at the front of the stage, with the smell of chlorine wafting into the auditorium. Roy Orbison’s recording of “You Got It” is blasted at deafening volume at both the start and end of the evening. And there’s an elaborately choreographed fight scene, complete with near drowning, that seems to go on forever. And yet, Red Speedo, much like a swimmer doing laps, expends considerable effort without getting anywhere interesting.
Hnath has received considerable media attention for such imaginative dramas as Isaac’s Eye, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney and, most recently, The Christians. This latest effort similarly reflects the playwright’s keen aptitude for exploring hot-button themes.
Performed over an intermissionless 80 minutes, the play concerns Ray (Alex Breaux), a “swimming machine” who on the eve of Olympic trials is suspected by his coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) of using performance-enhancing drugs. Vigorously protesting Ray’s innocence is his older brother Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), who serves as his lawyer and de facto agent.
Although he denies it at first, Ray eventually admits to using the drugs that were initially provided by his sports therapist, ex-girlfriend Lydia (Zoe Winters). But he insists there’s nothing wrong with it, likening using the banned substances to his own form of “affirmative action.” He, along with his brother, is determined to snag a major endorsement deal with Speedo, and to make himself stand out from the pack he’s also gotten a hideous, giant tattoo of a sea serpent inked from his shoulder, down his back and onto his leg.
The play is composed of a series of brief confrontational scenes featuring overlapping, staccato dialogue, and that’s not the only thing reminiscent of David Mamet. Dealing with themes ranging from the commercialization of athletes to the sports world’s hyper-competitiveness and rapacity, which leaves morality in the dust, its characters are almost wholly unsympathetic, all eventually revealed to be only looking out for their own interests.
Unfortunately, the provocative themes are undercut by mannered dialogue, one-note characterizations and melodramatic, contrived plotting. The play is also, despite all its sensationalism, so tedious that the frequent blasting of an air horn between scenes seems necessary to keep the audience awake.
Breaux, spending the entire play clad only in the titular swimwear, certainly has the requisite sinewy physique, and is so scarily convincing in conveying his character’s dimness that it’s a relief to read in the program that he went to Harvard and Juilliard. He and Rooney also deserve extra points for surviving their brutal fight scene eight times a week. But for all their hard-working efforts and those of the other performers, Red Speedo is disappointingly skimpy.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop, New York
Cast: Alex Breaux, Peter Jay Fernandez, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Zoe Winters
Playwright: Lucas Hnath
Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Montana Blanco
Lighting designer: Yi Zhao
Sound designer: Matt Tierney
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop
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