Austerity and Indulgence
By Jonathan Kalb
By Lucas Hnath
New York Theater Workshop
41 E. 4th St.
Red Speedo is a terse and disturbing moral parable about win-at-all-costs America—the precondition for Trumpism. Ray, a talented swimmer on the cusp of the Olympic trials and lucrative endorsement deals, doesn’t believe he can win without PEDs, and his behavior generates a web of interlocking betrayals among those close to him. Both his brother Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), a lawyer hoping to cash in by managing him, and his coach (Peter Jay Fernandez), craving the glory of riding his rocket, must negotiate the dubious ethical landscape he has chosen to inhabit. His ex-girlfriend Lydia (Zoë Winters) seems briefly like she might be exceptional, a grounding influence on him, but she too spins in the tainted eddy of this blithely fallen world, where not getting caught and looking good are way more important than doing right.
The slyness of this fine play comes from the fact that no one is quite who they seem at first, even though they all speak in short, clipped, declarative phrases redolent of Mamet and Marber and even though Ray spends the entire 80-minute action seemingly laid bare in the tiny titular garment. His sculpted body becomes not only a sensual object in itself but also a focus for extended ruminations on aging, physical discipline, physical limits, drug damage, and the ethical disposition of unaccommodated man. For a long while you can’t tell that Ray is playing everyone around him for a dupe, because the actor Alex Breaux is a Houdini at hiding in plain sight. His not-quite-endearing veneer of dumb distractedness conceals ruthless self-interest.
I don’t have the same admiration for Lileana Blain-Cruz’s staging of this show as I do for the writing and acting. Much of her blocking is stiff and artificial (many moments feel like gratuitous poses) and the play’s few bursts of violence feel clunky and unconvincing. Worse, the ingenious swimming pool set by designer Riccardo Hernandez—which features a real tank of water facing the audience, aquarium-style—comes off as nothing but a costly conceit because it’s inexplicably underutilized. This is Ray’s practice pool, and building it for actual use was a delightful novelty that ought to have varied and activated the play’s spectacle of physicality. Disappointingly, he swims in it only once for less than ten seconds.
Sharp, smart and timely, Red Speedo is bound to appear on numerous regional stages in coming years. It will be exciting to see how other productions manage its complicated, sexy and politically charged interplay of austerity and indulgence.