To see Lucas Hnath’s new play Red Speedo, you climb stairs from the second-floor gallery at Studio Theater, pass through a door into backspace, climb more stairs, pass through a door into the playing space, climb more stairs, and cross a catwalk to an usher, who will point to a seat in one of four rows. You have to climb down to your seat.
Direct approaches to that space are readily available, but director Lila Neugebauer and set designer Mimi Lien want you to feel like you’re entering “the inner sanctum of a building,” where pools are sometimes hidden. “We’re looking into using a little bleach to get some olfactory design as well,” Lien said.
The playing space looks just like a pool deck: the tiles are the right size, the lip is the right height, and the light is a universal wash that leaves no shadow anywhere. Just right. The pace clock looks just like the pace clocks that regulated the workouts I swam twice a day throughout my youth.
It’s a well-wrought illusion.
The play tells the story of an Olympic swimmer who is about to sign an endorsement deal with Speedo when a doping scandal erupts in his locker room — or threatens to erupt. It isn’t clear who owns the drugs at first, and the two people attached to Ray’s success, the brother who brokered the Speedo deal, and his coach, are at odds about what to do with them. The brother says flush them, the coach says turn them over to officials.
Or at least Coach says that when he finally gets a chance to speak: Thomas Jay Ryan, who plays Ray’s brother Peter, controls the time, the space, the air, and all the energy for the first seven or eight minutes in a continuous stream of language without a break in thought or a pause for breath. It’s a technical feat that makes you wonder if a hidden tank is pumping air into his lungs, which is the opposite of well-wrought illusion. In fact, it’s one of many elements that push against the realistic ethos Lien and Neugebauer worked to establish.
When Coach finally gets a chance to speak, his lines are intercut with Peter’s lines in fragmentary snatches, like separate recordings, snipped and spliced, the auditory equivalent of watching people dance under a strobe light. It’s language trying to do something other than represent reality.
Likewise the blocking: most of the time, two characters stand fifteen yards apart and talk across the pool deck, barely moving. And eventually you realize that the setting isn’t realistic either: none of this would happen on the pool deck. In offices, maybe, or locker rooms, or living rooms, or restaurants, but not on the deck.
Ray himself at first looks like a realistic element. His body — Frank Boyd’s body — looks like the real Olympic thing. It’s even properly shaved. And he’s eating baby carrots, constantly, clean food, which looks right at first. But then you realize that he’d be eating something with calories to burn, not carrots, and that he’d be wearing sweats or jeans while he had all these conversations, not just a speedo, which looks conspicuously like a costume all of a sudden. And then you realize that, real as this stuff looks, it’s not supposed to represent reality.
Which could be a good thing. That tension between realistic elements and non-representational elements could open the play to some of its larger ideas, like the “level playing field” illusion, borrowed from the world of sports, where every playing field is actually tilted toward men and women with genetic advantages — just like every other field of competition, Ray would argue.
Closes October 13, 2013
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Ray doesn’t want to tell that story anymore.
“I’m tired of winning,” he says at one point, and you hold your breath. There’s the story, something in you says: I’m tired of winning, I’m tired of winning, whether winning is determined by genetics or by a trick of the mind or by work and work and work, I’m tired of winning. That doesn’t make sense, but it rings true, and suddenly the man who’s been made to stand before you in a speedo eating carrots for an hour looks like something other than a swimmer, something more.
But circumstances pull him back from the brink of transcending himself, and in the end we don’t see anybody in this play except the people who are in it: the plot wraps up too tightly to afford a glimpse of anybody else. If every action can be traced to some specific cause, if every question can be answered with specific information, there’s no chance to hear the stories we don’t really understand, the ones we long to hear, the ones we try to tell ourselves.
Red Speedo by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Featuring Frank Boyd, Thomas Jay Ryan, Harry A. Winter, and Laura C. Harris. Set design by Mimi Lien. Lighting by Dan Covey. Produced by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.