Michael Mayes, Jon Patrick O’ Brien & Joseph Hatfield in Red Speedo.
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Amy Attaway
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
This new play about an athlete using performance-enhancing drugs (PED) might be mistaken for a ripped-from-the headlines drama, yet it is far more provocative and subtle than that. The ethical conflicts portrayed here will obviously conjure up the image of various real-life sports superstars that have made news in recent years, but the shifting perspective also put me in mind of the varying attitudes we witness in the public reaction to the controversy surrounding Ray Rice and the NFL.
Playwright Lucas Hnath seems less concerned with assigning blame and more focused on the surprising fluidity of integrity and allure of expediency within the pressure cooker of professional sports opportunities. The viewer initially encounters these characters as paragons of virtue, only to witness greed and ego override good judgment and any sense of fair play and decency.
Yet the play avoids the sensibility of a docudrama, particularly through dialogue that is structured with such specificity and heightened awareness that the removal of one word or syllable might upset the rhythm. There are several exchanges in which words within sentences are volleyed back and forth as in a championship tennis match. As rendered in this production, it is brought off with a note of self-consciousness that struck me as appropriate, but felt slightly at odds with the sometimes more naturalistic tone in the delivery outside of these exchanges.
The distinction resulted in an interesting tension in the performances, which may very well have been the intention. As the swimmer, Ray, Michael Mayes captured an innocent, almost naïve quality that made the emergence of the character’s near amorality fascinating to witness. He often stares out over the heads of the audience, only every so often making eye contact with the other characters. It gives the character a curious, distracted quality that suggests he is occupying a slightly different plane of existence from the rest of us. Ray never seems to question himself very deeply, unlike his brother Peter, a lawyer who advises Ray and whose ambition is to become a sports agent. Jon Patrick O’Brien attacks the litigator’s mind of the character, making his character the most passionate in openly exploring the issues at hand. Joseph Hatfield’s Coach, who most assuredly occupies the standard of unassailable integrity in the story, follows his work hard upon. Sarah East is also very fine as Lydia, Ray’s ex-girlfriend who had first supplied him with PED. But the meat of the action is between the three men, and Hnath also seems to be examining the patriarchal dynamic that plays an important role in the power play of sports as big money enterprise.
Not a moment is wasted. It is a brisk 80 or so minutes without an intermission, but inserting one would have been disastrous to the production, which flows beautifully. The lean, tight writing is reflected in the design work, including Karl Anderson’s clean and dry realization of a pool facility set, and Evan Prizant’s impressive tattoo of a sea serpent that extends from Mr. Mayes’ neck down to his left leg.
Red Speedo is as strong an example as one could ask for of Theatre ’s mission, and continues the relationship between Louisville audiences and this playwright, who has been featured several times at Actors Theatre, most recently with last season’s Humana Festival entry, The Christians. At a time when complex political and social questions are rarely met with other than simple-minded response, he reminds us that there aren’t always easy answers about right and wrong, no matter how much we might desire them.
September 12- 21, 2014
The Baron’s Theatre
131 East Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at the Louisville Visual Art Association during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com[/box_light]