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3/8/16

The Star Sporting the Red Speedo in Red Speedo

I feel bad for Eric Simonson, lovely readers.

I am purely speculating when I say the poor guy - who’s “Sports-Meets-Broadway” productions of Lombardi and the problematic Magic/Bird and Bronx Bombers never really achieved much - probably downed a strong drink or four at a bar after he hate-watched Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo, playing at New York Theatre Workshop. Y’know, assuming Simonson saw it or will see it, that is...

Because Hnath’s play - taking place on the eve of the Olympic swimming trials, where performance-enhancing drugs were found on-site - blows everything Simonson has written out of the water, pun not intended.

And no, not just because Hnath has the good sense of having a studly Alex Breaux cavort around all muscled and tattoo-ed up wearing ONLY a red speedo for 90 minutes. The play is quite good, so much so, your attention is (mostly) diverted from the delightful thirst-trap.

But we’ll get back to Breaux’s performance in a minute (and no, I am not talking about his body, settle down). Hnath did exactly what he had to in order to incorporate a sporting element into an Off-Broadway play and make it worthwhile: by removing the sporting element almost entirely. Oh sure, there is a pool and the smell of chlorine in the air (fantastic set work, by the way, courtesy of Riccardo Hernandez) and Breaux’s Ray gets his laps in…but the emphasis remains on the characters and its “ripped-from-the-headlines” themes. The temptation of performance-enhancing drugs, the pressure, desire and greed attached to winning sporting competitions, the behind-the-scenes corruption and deception, the marginalization of the talent and the entourage of people riding his/her coattails…it’s all there piercing through every scene.

This is where Red Speedo works where Simonson’s plays do not. Instead of translating a historical sports story for the stage (a story that theatre audiences are unfamiliar with and/or don’t give a fuck about), Hnath essentially wrote a character study/morality tale, incorporated some swimming lingo and set it pool-side. To be fair, Hnath doesn’t quite say anything new about these subject matters, but he wasn’t obligated to nor does Red Speedo suffer for it. The play also doesn’t suffer from his one-sided cynicism because…well, let’s be honest: who isn’t skeptical, at the minimum, of the big-business, sports culture machine with how many drug usage, deflate-gate or physical/sexual assault scandals unfold weekly, it would seem?

But two things really impressed me: how universal it felt despite the focus on the swimming landscape and the laser-tight plotting.

You could maintain the same character tropes in this play {the talent, the coach, the brother who doubles as the agent/lawyer, the love interest} with an entirely different industry, and the themes/commentary would still apply, like the music industry for instance. In certain scenes, Ray's coach and his brother Peter (mostly the latter) talk about Ray, his livelihood and his future like he is property or he isn’t in the room (Ray is typically silent or ignored whenever he tries to get a word in edge-wise). I kept making this association where a recording artist’s manager/agent would converse with a record producer with a similar vernacular and mentality, the artist him or herself just window-dressing to the conversation. It's a nice little trick and goes to show how spot-on Hnath's depiction of that slice of humanity is.

The “twists and turns” and conflicting character motivations result in some great plotting and kept me on my toes, sotospeak. With each scene change air horn, nuances and reveals amongst the characters come out propelling the story forward. Between Ray and his ambitions for success and to win back his ex-girlfriend, Ray's coach and the future of his swim center, Peter ‘using’ Ray to provide for his family so the former can exit his lawyer job, Ray's ex-girlfriend and her agenda...Hnath ultimately kept all of the competing conflicts and motivations afloat. It was like watching the plotting of a great episode of House of Cards unfold.

Even with all of what Lucas Hnath brought to the table, Alex Breaux’s flawless performance is the stunner of Red Speedo. With his all-american looks and long, shredded body, it was like he was conceived in a petri dish to play the part of a swimmer. Clearly, the casting team had an easy day the moment Alex walked in and took his shirt off. Could you even imagine sitting in that audition room next to him? All the other basic actors probably just went home and downed a pint of ice cream to absolve their feelz.

The character of Ray has his roots dug into the prevailing Ryan Lochte type (not to say that all swimmers are morons, by any means), but Breaux's portrayal rises above caricature. He exudes a child-like innocence as he nibbles on his carrots and watches the adults talk about him or talk at him, but when Alex opens his mouth and says dullard-sounding or meaningful/insightful notions (or a combination of both), he straddles the perfect line between both camps - being recognizably block-headed, but smart enough to carry a conversation in a theatrical show. That was EXACTLY what was needed because Ray is the heart of the story and every other character’s presence revolves around him.

And Alex evolves with that balancing act throughout. When it is disclosed that Ray is not a passive player in controversial matters, he inhabits an underdog charm as he summons the courage to challenge those around him (except his ex, who had him in the palm of her hands). But you do cheer as his self-empowerment kicks in and you cringe for him when he makes some ill-advised comment. Everything about Breaux’s performance lands and even though Red Speedo had some good elements, he’s the one who brings home all the gold medals possible for one assured performance.


Photo Credit: Joan Marcus