Why so much huffing and puffing about performance-enhancing drugs? “Red Speedo,” the new play premiering at the Studio Theatre, wants to know.
“There are people who will never be good at baseball just because of how their bodies are built,” playwright Lucas Hnath (pronounced “Nayth”) said. “So being outraged at performance-enhancing drugs just seems to me to be fundamentally illogical.”
Hnath, a Florida-raised 33-year-old who sometimes swims twice a day, has the longish hair and slow, soft speech of a surfer. He has written a poolside drama about a swimmer who is pretty sure he can’t win if he’s not juiced. Yet Hnath is hardly plugged into the scandals that have rocked the sports world since before surly home-run-crusher and performance-enhancing-drugs-pariah Barry Bonds’s head surged to a bold new circumference.
The ultra-muscular East German female swimmers were widely suspected of using steroids during the 1970s and 1980s Olympics. In 1991, their coaches confessed it was true. Tour de France cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong turned out to be a serial doper, and a remarkably wily transfuser of his own blood.
Alex Rodriguez, long projected to become baseball’s home run king, was the biggest name among 13 major leaguers suspended this summer as baseball keeps trying to clean up the game. (Rodriguez has appealed, so he’s still on the field.) And earlier this month: was Diana Nyad’s swim from Cuba to Key West “clean”?
In Hnath’s terse, four-character play about a troubled swimmer trying to qualify for the Olympics, multi-medalists Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are the only names that get dropped. For Hnath, it’s easy to keep actual athletic news at arm’s length.
“Honestly, if you asked me what sport that person played, I would probably be momentarily stumped,” Hnath said of A-Rod. “I think he plays for a New York team, because New York seems to talk about him a lot.”
Although “Red Speedo,” titled for an endorsement deal the heavily tattooed swimmer is after, isn’t specifically torn from the headlines, Hnath and director Lila Neugebauer hope it taps into bigger issues about fairness and heroes.
At first, Neugebauer said she thought the problem simply had to do with athletes who thought rules didn’t apply to them.
“But doping is just the arena for a conversation about what constitutes fairness, and the myth of equal opportunity,” said Neugebauer, a specialist in new plays. (She directed Annie Baker’s super-slow motion slacker drama “The Aliens” at the Studio last fall.)
Hnath’s and Neugebauer’s research has uncovered some intriguing angles about the mindset not only of elite athletes but of the fans who worships them. The director asks a good question for a town currently scratching its head about the subpar performance of its superstar quarterback, Robert Griffin III, whose knee injury last winter and return to the field this month (too soon?) was hyped into the stuff of myth.
“Why do we need them to be superhuman?” Neugebauer said. “What is the cost to us when we find they are not the superhumans we wanted them to be?”
Hnath interviewed boxers for a play commissioned by a New York theater company. He found that they were quick to rationalize losses and slow to blame themselves. He also saw a study in which the outcome of a sprint was accurately predicted by a single factor: the runners’ testosterone levels.
Another story measured people’s abilities to self-deceive and found that athletes can do this better than just about anyone. To Hnath, that makes sense.
“You have to sit there and say, ‘I’m amazing, I’m amazing, I’m amazing; I’m going to win,’” Hnath said.
“Red Speedo” seems to be characteristic for Hnath, an emerging writer frequently drawn to current issues and public figures. He and Neugebauer met a few years ago as the Actors Theatre of Louisville presented a staged reading of his short “The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith.” Last spring, Manhattan’s Soho Rep. produced Hnath’s elaborately titled “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.”
“It makes it pretty easy to market the play,” Hnath said of his penchant for bold-face names.
Other plays include “Hillary and Clinton,” which imagines a campaign strategy deal between the former president and his candidate wife, and “About a Woman Named Sarah,” using elements of Japanese Noh drama to depict the first interview between John McCain and Sarah Palin.
“It feels like it wants to be a trilogy about that particular election,” Hnath said of those 2008-themed plays. “I make absolutely no attempt to imitate the characters involved. And writing it, I take a couple of facts and make the rest up. The attempt is to take something that already feels dated and try to find something more timeless in it, turn it into modern day myths — in some way, to emulate the Greeks.”
Hnath grew up in Orlando, close to Walt Disney World, and attended an evangelical megachurch. “Probably my introductions to theater,” he said. “It’s weird that I’ve become so minimalistic. A lot of my plays have a chair and a bank of lights, and we’re good to go.”
Orlando gave Hnath his “presentational take of American character,” said Studio literary director Adrien-Alice Hansel, who also met Hnath (and Neugebauer) in Louisville. (Hansel was director of new play development at the Actors Theatre.)
Hansel said a lot of Hnath’s plays “tell stories so that we’re the winners. This is really about a bunch of characters who justify things to themselves in ways that seem alien, and then seem more and more familiar.”
by Lucas Hnath. Through Oct. 13 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org