Although “Red Speedo” concerns itself with events that occur in the water, the dramatic element most apparent on this evening at Studio Theatre is hot air.
Lucas Hnath’s topical new play, receiving its world premiere through the company’s low-priced Studio Lab program, propels us into the ethical and legal morass of performance-enhancing drugs and the life of Ray (Frank Boyd), an Olympic breaststroke hopeful who seems to need an artificial daily boost to maintain his edge in the pool.
Much care has been taken by director Lila Neugebauer and her designers — especially via Mimi Lien’s tiled shower-room set and Dan Covey’s unforgiving lighting — to evoke the serene, sanitized beauty of the sport. Entering the space, you can even smell chlorine. Clad in the skimpy costume of the title, Boyd, too, convincingly conveys the dull certitude of a single-track (or in this case, single-lane) mind.
But the story that Hnath unfolds over 80 minutes isn’t much of one, and this narrative paltriness leaves a sensation of having consumed half a meal. It’s not a bitter aftertaste, however: The sinewy dialogue, replete with half-formed thoughts and sentences that the characters finish for one another, owes much to David Mamet’s verbal pugilism. Hnath is deft enough as a stylist to infuse the back-and-forth with the necessary energy, even if Neugebauer can’t quite tease out of it all the requisite crackle.
It couldn’t really be, could it, that all we’re supposed to glean from “Red Speedo” is that athletes are driven, lawyers are craven and coaches are beholden to their stars? The dilemma presented to Ray and older brother Peter (Thomas Jay Ryan) is that on the eve of the Olympic swimming trials, Ray’s longtime coach (Harry A. Winter) has found a stash of a banned substance in the team fridge. A whiff of scandal could end Ray’s career and with it, the huge payday he’s on the verge of, courtesy of the endorsement deal Peter is brokering for him with Speedo.
Maybe “Red Speedo” should be subtitled “Nobody’s Clean,” because the coach’s threat to go to the sport’s governing authority with his discovery sets off a cascade of unsavory revelations about each of the characters, including Ray’s ex-girlfriend Lydia (Laura C. Harris), who lost her professional license in a drug-procurement scheme. It is fast-talking lawyer Peter, however, who comes across as the slimiest of these theatrical eels: He’s painted as willing to sacrifice anything to keep the Speedo deal from tanking — even, paradoxically, his brother’s health.
Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with sports these days is aware of the investigations into which superstar is using what drugs to achieve better results. So Hnath has the news cycle on his side, and in his conception of Ray, a compelling idea of the modern American athlete as a soulless commodity with a single sellable skill. Ray’s notion of achieving distinction in his discipline has nothing to do with the thrill of victory. (He even confesses to being tired of winning.) His brainstorm instead is a garish way for fans to pick him out in the pool, an identifying mark that turns him into a billboard for his own brand.
“Red Speedo” does ask us to ponder what attributes, aside from an ability to win, we look for in the biographies of high achievers. Ray is actually kind of a loser, an uneducated lap swimmer with an arrest record: Jesse Pinkman, sans body hair. The flatness of Boyd’s affect provides for Ray a suitably enigmatic veneer; if by chance there is a soul in there somewhere, the windows on it are cloudy.
Nobody in his circle thinks much of Ray, either, but perhaps that is because these smarter people all see in him the same abdication of morals they recognize in themselves. Neugebauer elicits from her fine cast a collective sense of the psychic fatigue that comes from not doing the right thing too frequently. Ryan, Harris and Winter all deftly embody the denial and disaffection their characters feel, having staked their well-being on a man about whom they really can’t get too excited.
Some of the earmarks of pleasingly fraught, issue-laden drama are present in “Red Speedo.” That the playwright has not set down a fully satisfying work is also evident, right up to the clunky ending he’s fashioned — one that underlines the distance he has yet to travel to reach a desirable finish line.
by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Set, Mimi Lien; lighting, Dan Covey; costumes, Meghan Raham; sound, Christopher Baine; fight direction, Robb Hunter; dramaturgy, Adrien-Alice Hansel. About 80 minutes. $20. Through Oct. 13 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.