Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Lucas Hnath's RED SPEEDO at the New York Theatre Workshop

     Lucas Hnath's fascinating RED SPEEDO is almost classical in its simple structure. Like classical tragedy, a series of confrontations between a complex, deeply flawed central character expose harsh truths about a society, in this case materialistic, morally compromised contemporary America. Our central character leaves the stage only once (to change his red speedo swimsuit). Otherwise, he engages in charged dialogue with the people with whom he is engaged in complex personal and power relationships, brother, coach, ex-girlfriend. They may love him, but they also see him as a commodity.
     When we first meet him, Ray, our protagonist (a brilliant Alex Breaux), is a swimmer on the eve of the qualifying round for the olympic swim team. Ray's only talent is swimming. In many ways, he's a version of the dumb jock. There are depths to his character, but he doesn't have the language to express them. A few years before, he broke his rise to success and disappeared into the desert to meditate. Now he's back but he isn't happy. In the first scene, Ray's older brother Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), does all the talking, almost a nonstop harangue to Ray's coach (Peter Jay Fernandez). Another swimmer may have used performance-enhancing drugs and Peter, protective of Ray's  (and his), chances for success and corporate sponsorship, wants the coach to keep quiet or he'll switch Ray to another coach. Throughout, Ray stands quietly, nibbling on baby carrots. He feels loyalty to his brother who has bailed him out of many bad situations. Ray doesn't express his own wants, because he doesn't know what they are. Peter doesn't care about truth. He dreams of getting out of his legal practice, which bores him, and going into sports management. If he succeeds in making Ray a success, he'll be on his way. If Ray gets into speedo ads, they'll both be set for life. The problem is that in his own bumbling, sweet way, Ray has no more moral compass than anyone else.
     What we see in the riveting eighty minutes of RED SPEEDO is an amoral culture. I thought at moments about Arthur Miller plays in which characters became so filled with ambition or illusions of success that they became lost. Everyone is compromised here, no one more than our protagonist. Like all fine playwrights, Lucas Hnath is particularly fascinated with language. RED SPEEDO opens with Peter's explosion of language and ends with a physical fight, punctuated only by primitive grunts and groans. RED SPEEDO is a major play, deserving of a long life beyond East 4th Street.
     Lileana Blain-Cruz has given the play the clean, deftly paced, production it deserves. Ricardo Hernandez's swimming pool set, dominated by an imposing, blank wall, is an appropriate setting for this quasi-tragedy. Alex Breaux is perfect as Ray. I'm sure it isn't easy for a product of Harvard and Juilliard to play someone as dim and inarticulate as Ray, but Breaux never condescends to his character, never plays a stereotype. We know Ray is thinking, feeling, even if he seldom can express what he is feeling. Lucas Caleb Rooney seems too old to play Ray's brother. A younger actor would have been more appropriate. A note to the costumer: if Peter is indeed a successful lawyer, he'd be dressed and shod more nattily. Peter Jay Fernandez and Zoe Winters as Ray's ex-girlfriend and sports therapist with a dangerous side business, do well  in their brief moments onstage.
     In a word, terrific.
RED SPEEDO. New York Theatre Workshop. March 1, 2016.  

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