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?”