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Red Speedo

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Peter Jay Fernandez, Alex Breaux, and Lucas Caleb Rooney
Photo by Joan Marcus

Chlorine is not something that everyone will enjoy assaulting their nostrils upon entering New York Theatre Workshop for Red Speedo, the new play by Lucas Hnath that just opened there, but it certainly plunges you immediately into the action. The pool (full of real water, naturally) consuming the front third or so of the playing space is real, and so is the smell associated with it—you never doubt, even from the earliest moments, that you are immersed up to your head in the world of professional swimming. But it's chemicals or additives of a different kind that factor more into this timely but oddly timid look at how far any of us may go to win.

Specifically performance-enhancing substances, which Ray (Alex Breaux) considers an essential if he's to pass the final trials and make the U.S. Olympic team. (The length of his fingers, an attribute beyond his control, dictates that he'll always face challenges, so doesn't he deserve a leg up?) His brother-lawyer-manager, Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), and coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) don't know anything about it, but are in their own ways dependent on Ray's success. How far can—and should—a guy go to make those around him happy? Should he even deign to (gasp) contact his ex-girlfriend, here named Lydia (and played by Zoë Winters), if she might have the stuff he needs?

Zoë Winters and Alex Breaux
Photo by Joan Marcus

These are vital concerns, and Hnath tackles them with the same bluntness he did literal matters of heaven and hell in The Christians at Playwrights Horizons earlier this season. But he's even more interested in exploring the dynamics of Ray's three family (or pseudo-family) relationships, particularly with regards to the obligations and expectations that pass back and forth. If Ray's entire career (and the lucrative Speedo endorsement he's a hair's breadth away from signing) could propel his brother out of law and his family into success, should he pursue it? And what does he owe the coach who got him there, or the woman who clearly still has his heart?

It's a bit of a jumble of content for a 90-minute play, and neither Hnath nor his director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, quite make it cohere. Aside from a pitch-perfect physical production (the institutional-gymnasium set is by Riccardo Hernandez, the slickly icky lighting by Yi Zhao, the cavernous sound by Matt Tierney, and the costumes—including the scant title number, which is about all Breaux wears—by Montana Blanco), what you get instead are moments of intensity and insight, especially when Ray must, in turn, confront the three people who have affected him most on their own terms, separated by literal and figurative splashes that douse what sparks are generated. A last-minute fight between two characters, despite its bloody ferocity, has difficulty believably capturing the rage and agony that are simmering under its participants' surfaces. It's as if Hnath wanted to end with a bang, but neglected the finer points of the buildup that would make it truly hit home.

Part of the problem may be that one of Red Speedo's greatest strengths also turns out to be a considerable weakness. Hnath has penned crisply clipped dialogue that has the right sound and feel for four people are always on the go go go, and it's exciting to listen to, but it may be too realistic to dig sufficiently deep in the absence of a richer story. Only in Lydia's case does it create a full-bodied human being, and it does so then probably only because she appears in but one fairly short, straightforward scene. Otherwise you get a lot of broad strokes that verge dangerously on caricature—down to his guy-next-door dumbness, Ray is all but the spitting image of Ryan Lochte, for example, and is otherwise not freshly conceived—and shock-driven staging from Blain-Cruz that imparts an unconvincing urgency.

Breaux does what he can, but Ray just isn't that compelling: You learn most everything you need to know about him in the opening scene, and then watch the actor plod through the motions of unraveling the mostly flat consequences while wearing an almost hypnotically blank stare throughout. (It definitely signals Ray's singular focus, but perhaps does so too well.) Rooney gives a meaty portrayal of an ordinary dreamer teetering on vicarious glory, and never oversells Peter's percolating desperation, which makes him seem stronger and scarier than you'd expect at first glance. Lydia gets the forceful rendering she deserves with Winters's intricate, take-no-prisoners approach, and the slow-burn devotion Fernandez brings to the coach nicely rounds out a fairly thin figure.

Red Speedo as a whole, though, needs the same kind of treatment. Like The Christians (which was set against the backdrop of an evangelical Church service), it seeks to fuse its plot with its presentation. But the lack of firm natural connections between the two and the bad choices that are presented as the only options give you less to gnaw on than you need to feel nourished about these issues. For all the Big Questions the play and its characters have on their minds, as refracted through that water and sanitized by the chlorine, they end up small, soggy, and sterile.

Red Speedo
Through March 27
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
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