What's that wafting off the stage at New York Theatre Workshop? Depending on your perspective, it could be the smell of opportunity or chlorine. It's actually both. Lucas Hnath's Red Speedo is a new play about success, survival, and desperation — and the porous border between those three states in modern America. It takes place on a stage that is deceptively antiseptic for such messy issues.
Set designer Riccardo Hernandez has built the edge of a swimming pool onstage, with the front row peering underwater through glass (like at SeaWorld) as Ray (Alex Breaux) swims a lap. It is just days before the Olympic trials and Ray has recently beaten both Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. He seems like a shoo-in for Team USA, but there's a problem: Performance-enhancing drugs have recently been discovered in a club refrigerator. Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney) is Ray's manager, attorney, and brother (in that order). He frantically tells Coach (a stony and inscrutable Peter Jay Fernandez) that the drugs belong to another swimmer. Ray stands between the two men, grazing on baby carrots. His blank stare conceals the fact that the drugs really are his. He insists that he needs them to win. In turn, Peter and Coach also need Ray to win in order boost their own careers — a mountain of endorsement money hangs in the balance. How far will these people go to get ahead? Pretty far, it turns out.
Espousing veiled threats and promises of bribery in a single breath, Rooney's Peter is the quintessential sleazy lawyer. His mad spinning is his only defense against a crippling fear of poverty. He furiously explains why he needs to put his daughter in a good private school: "You take a poor kid, a poor kid who has talent, has to put up with all the sh*t of being poor and has to work harder because of it," he frets. "A rich kid with the same talent doesn't have to put up with so much, and that kid'll still go farther."
It's hard to see how Peter is wrong, especially when we meet Lydia (a calloused and bruised Zoë Winters), Ray's ex-girlfriend who was arrested after getting caught up in her own drug-dealing scandal. Because of her arrest record, no one will hire her. Just as Ray has one shot at incredible wealth and fame, Lydia joined the permanent underclass with one stupid mistake.
Ray is determined to get things right. Breaux excels at playing the role of the dumb jock that is secretly quite intelligent. True, his justification for using the drugs — "How is what I'm doing not like affirmative action?" — is laughably spurious, but can you blame him when so much of his world is based on equally dubious sophistry? He exhibits a flair for self-promotion that suggests that, given the chance, he could become a major sports celebrity: He has etched a hideous tattoo of a sea serpent across his backside, from neck to heel (realistic, water resistant costume design by Montana Blanco). As ugly as it is, it's not a bad move: "Just thought it would be good for publicity and stuff," he explains, "because we all kinda look the same when we swim." If this swimming thing doesn't work out, I can think of a few PR firms that would benefit from his creativity.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz thrives within the physical constraints of the production, leading the cast to thrilling and dangerous performances. The thin strip of tile between the pool and the wall severely limits the playing space, raising the stakes as everyone remains precariously close to the precipice. This becomes particularly noticeable during a fight scene. Thomas Schall's stage combat is ugly and brutal, the opposite of a Hollywood action flick. All slippery tile, blunt impacts, and exhaustion, it is some of the most realistic stage violence I've witnessed. Sound designer Matt Tierney introduces the cruelty of time with an increasingly grating air horn that blasts between scenes. The careers of so many talented athletes competing in Rio this summer will be over by their 30th birthdays. Like them, Ray sees his window closing.
As he did with The Christians, Hnath raises hugely important questions about our society and the occasionally perverse behavior it encourages. What is the wisdom of basing success on one's ability to be exceptional? What does "giving 110 percent" really mean? Can we justify cheating when we feel that the game is already rigged against us? As always, Hnath leaves us to slug it out after the show, a fight certain to be as exhausting and fruitless as the one at the end of this troubling and truthful play.