By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“You did the only thing you could,/and the only thing you should./When you go for what you want, when you think about yourself,/when you do what’s best for you,/everyone benefits” – Peter to Ray
On the eve before the qualifying trial for the Olympics, Ray (Alex Breaux) stands by the pool at his club listening to his brother Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney) try to convince his Coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) to destroy the evidence found in the Coach’s refrigerator in his office. That evidence is a cooler full of performance enhancing drugs ostensibly owned by Ray’s nemesis Tad. Ray breaks into the exchange between his brother and his Coach suggesting his brother “hold on to the drugs for safe keeping until after the race, and once Coach has decided what to do after he’s had more time to think.” That suggestion foreshadows the central conflict in Lucas Hnath’s “Red Speedo” currently running at the New York Theatre Workshop: the drugs, in fact, belong to Ray and he has been taking them to increase his chances of getting to the Olympics.
The wonderful grit of “Red Speedo” results from the playwright’s ability to develop rounded characters with intriguing conflicts that drive 80 minutes of multilayered plots with enough twist and turns to keep the audience on their toes and on the edge of their seats throughout. After Ray’s startling admission, all bets are off as to whether he will be able to compete in the Olympics or whether Peter’s deals based on that competition will come to fruition. There is a great deal at stake for all four characters. Questions needing to be addressed are: who suggested Ray needed performance enhancing drugs, what he was thinking when he decided to take the drugs, where he obtained the drugs, why he thought he could get away with taking the drugs, and when will the money from the speedo deal start coming in?
The characters, ostensibly eschewing the arguments of their “opponents,” use the same rhetorical devices embedded in those arguments to counter and win. The fascinating device here is that they do not even know they are using the same style of rhetoric to argue their own point. As the “defrocked” sports therapist Lydia (Zoë Winters) battles with Ray over drugs, marriage proposals, the need to win and the perils of losing, she and Ray use the same tropes to win over the other and avoid the loss of pride and power. For the audience, embedded in all of these altercations is a delicious dose of dramatic irony.
Words fly fluidly across the stage and shoot out over the audience in rapid fire succession as the members of the ensemble cast of Lucas Hnath’s “Red Speedo” make their cases for winning and the dynamics of succeeding in competition. Enduring questions catapult off Riccardo Hernandez’ sturdy swimming pool wall and ricochet off the characters and the audience members with unrelenting ferocity. Is there only one set of values that determine how an individual competes? Is there only one moral path to winning? What does it mean to win? An air horn sounds to signify the beginning of a new scene or episode in the play and paves the way for the epistemological exercise that turns the heads of the audience members as quickly as marathon tennis match.
Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’ animated and resolute direction, the ensemble cast maintains a rigorous and energetic pace right up until the surprising, shocking, and somewhat disturbing ending. Alex Breaux’s Ray balances his accomplished street smarts with his somewhat off-putting “he’s no scholar” persona. Lucas Caleb Rooney’s Peter is an exasperating morally bankrupt attorney who, in the end, might be the only one who truly understands his conflicted younger brother. Peter Jay Fernandez’ Coach makes opportunism look like a values-laden construct. And Zoë Winters’ Lydia has the uncanny ability to convince Ray that the length of his fingers determines the chances of his ability to win so she can sell him performance enhancing drugs! Riccardo Hernandez’ swim club set is sleek and realistic to a fault – complete with a swimming pool. Yi Zhao’s lighting design is both subtle and stark. And Matt Tierney’s sound design reverberates with power and pathos.
“Red Speedo” – in a profound way – reintroduces for discussion the tenants of the theologian Joseph Fletcher’s “Situation Ethics: The New Morality” of the late 1990s. While trying to convince Lydia to get more HCG drugs for him, Ray argues, “I’m just saying all I’m tryin to get at is that/we all do things that are sorta good/and sorta not so good.” And in his appeal to Ray to stay with the swim club, the Coach asks, “Why would you want to mess around with something that works?/Why take the risk?” In other words, there seem to be no moral absolutes. The rich question throughout the play is, what are the characters willing to do to achieve what they want and/or perceive they need?
The play’s underbelly of moral ambiguity is counterpointed by the ambiguity extant at the conclusion of “Red Speedo” – ambiguity that leaves the audience wishing there were at least one more act!