BWW Reviews: Moral Dilemmas Exposed in Studio Theatre's World Premiere, RED SPEEDO
The latest offering from Studio Theatre's Lab initiative, Lucas Hnath's world premiere play, Red Speedo has some key ingredients that make it compelling to watch and ponder. Exposing the moral, ethical, and legal dilemmas at the center of elite sports (in this case, swimming), it asks the audience to consider where the grey lines of 'acceptable actions' lie in the pursuit of greatness and who bears responsibility for making the tough choices. It's a timely story especially in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year.
In Hnath's piece, there are no easy answers to the tough questions - in this case the acceptability of using performance-enhancing drugs. Here, a nameless coach (Harry A. Winter), an unconfident swimmer on the rise with little talent beyond the pool (Ray, played by Frank Boyd), and the swimmer's brother/representative (Peter, as portrayed by Thomas Jay Ryan) grapple with the myriad of primary and secondary consequences of the star swimmer's drug use. These unsavory discussions occur just hours before an Olympic qualifier event and as such, the stakes couldn't be higher. Costs and benefits of the drug use are weighed - in conversation and as part of internal, non-verbal struggles - in both predictable and startling ways at a frenetic pace that's much like an athletic event in and of itself.
However, despite the relevancy of the story in this modern age of sporting events and the way in which Hnath masterfully employs rapid-fire, fragmented dialogue to expose the fact that many questions ultimately go unanswered when drug behavior is discovered at inopportune times, the script is quite problematic. Although Studio's production of the play certainly features some very solid acting and design elements, which make the story probably more convincing and compelling than it is on paper, Lila Neugebauer's direction is not strong enough to hide the major flaws in the script.
Hnath demonstrates a tendency to throw seemingly every moral conundrum possible into his story. There's the question of what constitutes competitive advantage, as well as questions about the roles and responsibilities of medical professionals, family members who just happen to have a financial stake in an athlete's performance, and the coaches in situations of drug use. Then there's the question of corporate sponsorships of athletes and how far one should go to obtain them. Add in a bitter love story between the sports therapist - Lydia, well played by an appropriately calculating Laura C. Harris is a rather unnecessary role - that originally provided Ray with the drugs and Ray himself that happens to be slightly complicated because Ray's brother Peter influenced the outcome of a court case that cost Lydia her career? You pretty much have every issue but the kitchen sink. In the end, rather than a simple story that addresses some major moral dilemmas in an interesting way, you have a mostly contrived story.
As directed by Neugebauer, Studio's production of the play is unable to mask the fact that all of these moral dilemmas are endlessly discussed and repeated in one way or another throughout the play because she chooses to stage nearly every scene in the same way. Though the actors are more than up to the challenge of delivering Hnath's rapid-fire dialogue and nailing the comedic one-liners as well as the more profound comments to make the story as interesting and compelling as possible, they're ultimately constrained by the direction and the script itself to make the audience really care about where the story is headed and how everyone will end up.
Boyd and Ryan are particularly successful in taking on two of the juicier characters in the play and exposing their humanity in an authentic way - flaws and all. Physically, Boyd is the perfect embodiment of a world-class swimmer (dressed in speedo of course) and as an actor, he nails it with his portrayal of a man who's a bit emotionally and intellectually-stunted, and a bit unsure about his place not only in life, but in the pool. Yet, one must not - as his brother and ex-girlfriend learn - rule him out as completely vacant. Likewise, Ryan is particularly adept at exposing the struggle between family and professional bonds and related decisions about whose well-being is paramount. As portrayed by these two stellar actors, the brothers' complicated relationship is authentic and unforced. Even as they physically and emotionally battle with one another (executing Robb Hunter's realistic fight choreography when necessary with ease), they never lose sight of the fact that the two men share a bond.
The acting is not the only thing that's authentic. Mimi Lien's set is crucial to set the stage for the high-stakes, yet simple environment in which Ray spends most of his time - poolside. One can smell the chlorine upon entering the performance space and as one sits on the bleacher-like risers, it's easy to become intimately immersed into Ray's world. Meghan Raham's costumes, Christopher Baine's sound, and Dan Covey's lighting designs also are simple enough to make us believe we're not in a theatre, but poolside at a club where an elite athlete practices.
However, acting and production elements can't disguise the fact that the script needs more work. Hnath may be on to something and shows promise, but the play is certainly not ready for primetime. Thankfully, this is a Lab production, which will provide the playwright with ample opportunity to refine it.
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission. Red Speedo plays at Studio Theatre - 1501 14 Street, NW in Washington, DC - through October 13, 2013. For tickets, call the box office at 202-332-3300 or purchase them online.
Pictured: Frank Boyd. Photo by Teddy Wolff.