Red Speedo, a taut play about athletic competition at Studio Lab, itself begins with its own athletic contest: climbing several flights of stairs to the performance space. Once up there, you’re instantly hit with the smell of bleach, a nice touch to set designer Mimi Lien’s sparse, tiled poolside shower, its tiles faced by chlorine and use, Dan Covey’s bright overhead lights, working showers, the masonry giving an echo to the urgent arguments in its wall.
…a work that’s likely to become widely staged.
Lucas Hnath’s play concerns the last minute maneuvering of a hopeful Olympic swimmer at a club where a cache of performance enhancing drugs has just been found.
As the swimmer only known as Ray stands there, heavy-lidded, half out of it, munching on baby carrots, his hyperactive brother, a lawyer turned de facto sports agent, is arguing nonstop with the coach about how his client, er, brother must be removed from all this controversy, which has obviously been caused by a rival swimmer.
The coach puts up with as much as he can before announcing he’ll make his own decision.
Only then does Ray admit, once coach leaves the room, that it’s his own stash of drugs all along, and that they got him this far in the race and will likely take him to that next crucial step, into the kind of Olympic superstardom that means endorsements, riches, television shows, and a carefree life.
At the core of Red Speedo is not only the very timely argument about performance enhancing drugs in sports, but the big business of winning, and for all involved, the desperation of maintaining, as the American dream slips away from everyone.
Hnath’s work, which moves at a velocity enhanced by dropping its intermission, succeeds on surprise and the kind of nimble turns swimmers learn to negotiate in long races.
Revealing any more might rob you of that surprise. Suffice to say that the story gets deeper and more intricate as it continues, eventually involving a former lover and sports medicine doctor. And while much of the terse, back and forth dialog concerns action that has taken place off-stage and is now just revealed to other characters (and the audience), the climactic action takes part right on stage.
Red Speedo benefits from a strong cast, led by the Frank Boyd, who perfectly captures the demeanor of the kind of athlete who has been so focused on one goal: he’s not able to handle nearly anything else in his life. He’s been led to believe that winning gold will mean gold for the rest of his life, and he’ll do anything to get there.
At first he only has to look laconic, but that belies the panic and desperation of his later speeches, however (accurately) inarticulate he is.
Thomas Jay Ryan is fully credible as Ray’s scheming, legal-minded older brother. To him, not succeeding means directly threatening his family. So he acts as if backed in a corner as well. In many ways he has the toughest role on stage, with a lot of staccato speeches, the rhythms of which were not perfected in the opening matinee. I’m sure they’ll come. I like the fact that one of his fingers was bandaged for no explained reason. Seeing what comes later, it was probably due to a rehearsal fight, but it could have been anything the character might have done, including slamming a fist in a wall somewhere.
Even the coach, an avuncular Harry Winter, who seems at first to have only the highest intentions, is trapped by his own interests — staying with a winning swimmer, keeping the club open, gleaning fame for his own work in the process.
But Laura C. Ryan as the smoky ex, Lydia, provides the greatest effect in the shortest amount of time. She’s been burned by Ray’s brother, is hard edged and alluring, and yet harbors her own delusions about a way out after she is clearly backed into her own corner.
Director Lila Neugebauer does a good job keeping the largely verbal back and forth at a believable pace all while blocking the play to provide maximum effect. Robb Hunter’s role as fight director seems to have been to make actors actually hit each other.
There may not be much for Meghan Raham to work with as costume designer, but she comes up with a nifty Speedo design that would probably sell well if offered in a lobby concession. And as there’s no makeup artist credited, we may also assume she was responsible for a notable tattoo.
Dan Covey’s lighting design uses those large white lights that illuminate gyms but also suggest interrogation lights; they dim once, when Lydia is on stage, adding intimacy to a meeting long after the pool has closed.
Christopher Baine’s sound design depends on the jolt from racetime air horns and the pop blast of Roy Orbison’s 1989 “You Got It.”
Oddly, there’s no water in Lien’s marvelous set — except for sprays from the shower into a drain. But there’s Olympic-sized depth in the play, one that puts one of the most contentious issues of modern athletic competition up for discussion amid current economic jitters. Red Speedo ought to bring a broad audience to the theater to be engaged and entertained with a work that’s likely to become widely staged. If they can manage those stairs.
Running Time: Ninety minutes, with no intermission.
Red Speedo continues through Oct. 13 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C. The Studio Lab is accessible to patrons with special needs. Tickets are available at 202-332-3300 or here.