I only made it to the standard of mediocre varsity swimmer, but I spent many hours—too many hours—of my youth at the swimming pool. Designer Colin McIlvaine’s uncannily credible set captures these surroundings in Lucas Hnath’s RED SPEEDO—now in a finely acted and thoroughly engrossing production at Theatre Exile.
It’s the night before the U.S. Olympic trials and star swimmer Ray (Brian Ratcliffe) is distracted by a locker room scandal. His coach (Leonard C. Haas) found a bag of HCG—a performance enhancing drug—in the club refrigerator, and Ray’s big brother/agent, Peter (Keith Conallen) is trying to ensure that this discovery does not tarnish the swimmer’s reputation. “I’m going to ask you to do nothing,” he says. After all, Ray’s about to endorse a new line of red speedos, it’ll be lucrative for all of them. “Flush the drugs into toilet,” Peter pleads. Ray protests: perhaps he is looking out for more than his reputation.
HCG is a real drug (it’s what Manny Ramirez was banned for in 2009), used to maintain testosterone levels after a steroid regimen. It probably wouldn’t provide much meet-day advantage to a middle-distance swimmer, and it would definitely not get through a 2014 Olympic testing system. But Hnath is not interested in looking at the gritty realism behind drugs in competitive sports. He wants to dive deeper in his examination of human behavior
“We all do things that are sorta good, and things that are sorta not so good,” says Ray. In RED SPEEDO, each character is capable of doing those things that are sorta not so good. Hnath spares no one: Ray is the sort of wise-fool you see a lot more on stage or screen than in real life. But whether his actions come from naivite and brazenness, he is willing to sell out his former lover Lydia (Jaylene Clark Owens), his brother, or his coach, as the situation demands.
Another actor may have emphasized the drive to win and propensity to be “abusive” in the character of the coach..Haas plays him as a socially awkward gym teacher—a study which accentuates his venality.
Right off the blocks, Conallen is a grand prix of intensity as cut-throat lawyer Peter: he ranges from red-faced anger to simmering exasperation with pinpoint control. The most amoral of the characters, Peter is also fiercely loyal to his wayward brother, though even his better nature pushes him to conscienceless avarice.
Director Deborah Block keeps the intensity of RED SPEEDO even when Conallen’s feverish Peter is sitting out a few laps. McIlvaine’s water-filled pool lies like a Chekhovian gun at the front of the stage until Peter and Ray’s fraternal manipulations surface in a superbly choreographed final scene (fights by J. Alex Cordaro). Drew Billeau splashes ripples of light across the backdrop, adding to the eerie verisimilitude. The only thing missing is the stench of chlorine.
In some ways, this semblance of reality is a metaphor for Hnath’s play. The dubiously factual portrayal of performance enhancing drugs is not the only place where RED SPEEDO sacrifices realism for theatricality—a thoughtful and engaging theatricality. A plotline about Lydia losing her physio therapy license in unbelieveable; the four characters are more representational than realistic. But this doesn’t stop Hnath from finding some real truths: in the race of life, we are all willing to do “sorta not so good things” to get an advantage. [Theatre Exile's Studio X, 1340 S 13th Street] October 30-November 23, 2014; theatreexile.org.