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Theatre in Review: Red Speedo (New York Theatre Workshop)

Alex Breaux, Peter Jay Fernandez. Photo: Joan Marcus

The title of Lucas Hnath's last play, The Christians, would most definitely not apply to his newest work. Red Speedo is ostensibly about Olympic swimming, but the real sports being practiced are betrayal and one-upmanship, featuring a quartet of sharp-elbowed characters, each of whom sees the latest crisis as an opportunity to cut a sweeter deal.

They are Ray, a Michael Phelps-type swimming prodigy, with a brain that seems to have been permanently soaked in chlorine; Peter, his brother, a lawyer who is this close to closing a lucrative endorsement deal with Speedo, thus launching him on a new and more lucrative career as a sports agent; Lydia, Ray's ex-girlfriend, a sports therapist whose side work as a drug dealer has left her career in the tank; and Coach, Ray's trainer, who won't be replaced by a more famous colleague if he has anything to say about it. The double-crosses begin when Coach finds a bag of performance-enhancing drugs in the refrigerator of the facility where he trains Ray and other swimmers. Ray plausibly pins them on another fellow, and Peter, worried that any hint of scandal might queer the endorsement deal, pleads with Coach to quietly dispense with the evidence.

Then Ray privately admits to Peter that the drugs are his, adding that he can't perform without them and needs replacements, pronto. (He is about to take part in an Olympic trial; if he doesn't qualify, that Speedo money will vanish into thin air.) Because his regular source is in jail, he hits up Lydia, who is, to say the least, surprised to hear from him, not least because Peter played a key role in her indictment. (As it happens, he leaked information to another attorney unethically, running the risk of disbarment.) But Ray needs those drugs and he misses Lydia -- or so he says -- reasons that make him all too willing to ruin his brother's career. It gets squirrelier from there, with everybody playing the angles and ugly facts emerging from Ray's past. As each new deal is struck, those news stories about corruption in the Olympics seem more and more believable. Let's just say that this is one play Sepp Blatter won't be seeking out if he happens to be in town.

Red Speedo moves at a lightning pace through a series of confrontations spiked with stiletto-sharp dialogue reminiscent of David Mamet at his best. Peter kicks off the play with an aria designed to make Ray seem like an American hero, a portrait that doesn't square with the vacant, carrot-munching dude standing in front of us. Peter, a true striver, also has a scalding speech that begins with the proposition that "people with money are better than the people without money." Lydia's obvious resentment is mixed with a real desire for Ray, leaving us guessing about her motivations up to and beyond the moment when she appears to hit him with a cleverly calculated act of revenge. Coach comes across at first as a pillar of rectitude but he demonstrates an Olympic talent for getting into Ray's head and manipulating his fears; when he catches Ray in a terrible jam, he is all too happy to step in and clean up the mess -- and consolidate his own position. Ray, for all his vacuousness, has his Machiavellian side, as well; his modus operandi is to cozy up to someone and appear helpless, thus outsourcing his dirty work. He has a particularly juicy sequence in which he tries to explain to Peter that his use of drugs is just like affirmative action -- a program designed to help the disadvantaged get ahead.

Under Lileana Blain-Cruz's tightly coiled direction, the entire cast delivers. Alex Breaux's Ray, clad in nothing but the swimsuit of the title, is an ideal man-child, more interested in designing a line of Speedos based on the enormous tattoo on his back than on dealing with the criminal matters at hand, yet able to muster a certain animal cunning when required. Lucas Caleb Rooney's Peter is such a master of the art of slinging bull that he almost believes what he is saying; faced with evidence of betrayal at the hands of his sibling, you can see him quietly calculating how to turn the situation to his own advantage. Zoë Winters has only one scene as Lydia, but she still makes a formidable impression, especially in an aria explaining how, having connected with a film producer, she plans to turn her sordid story into an inspirational film. Peter Jay Fernandez's Coach displays an almost Iago-like knack for spooking Ray in order keep the young man under his control. And the fight choreographer, Thomas Schall, stages a climactic altercation that is just as ugly and awkward as it would be when two men unused to physical violence have at each other.

The double-dealing takes place poolside on Riccardo Hernandez's shiny, clean set, which contains a sliver of a swimming pool and a tiled wall with an enormous clock. Montana Blanco's costumes, Yi Zhao's lighting, and Matt Tierney's sound, which makes good use of Roy Orbison's "Anything You Want," are all solid.

"I'm tired of winning," murmurs Ray near the end of Red Speedo, as well he might, since he is ill, bruised, and no longer in control of his own life. By this point, Hnath has thoroughly dismantled the media-spun clichés that inform modern sports culture, the winning-is-the-only-thing philosophy that has produced a pantheon of sports heroes who are indistinguishable from felons. This young playwright continues to impress. -- David Barbour

(4 March 2016)

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