The fascinating American playwright Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo, receiving its Bay Area premiere at Center Rep in Walnut Creek under Markus Potter’s scalpel-sharp direction, captures a strange quality about ethical thinking -- it helps to not have any. Ethics, that is.
It’s an awful proposition, and one we resist throughout the play’s lurid, 80-minute sprint to hell, even as scene after scene unfolds to demonstrate otherwise. In that, Red Speedo is of the moment.
Hnath has a gift for burrowing into experiences containing an electric sense of reality. There’s a vivid stickiness to his characters and the situations that he puts them through. In The Christians (at the SF Playhouse last year), a sedate, Protestant church service becomes the unlikely scene for a rueful accounting of a pastor’s troubled marriage. Here, it’s a swimming club’s locker room on the eve of the Olympic trials that serves as the springboard for a brutal disquisition on the nature of sacrifice and identity.
Ray, a swimmer with serious Olympic aspirations, sits on a bench incessantly eating carrots, while his older brother Peter, a lawyer and his kind of manager, begs Ray’s coach to take a mysterious stash of drugs and flush them down the toilet: “People hear that one of your swimmers has been doing performance enhancing drugs, and people start to think that the whole team, and then Ray, who’s always been clean... gets implicated.”
It’s a classic setup, so clear that a child could parse it: Ray is dumb but talented, Peter is sleazy but compelling, and Coach holds his ground for the good of the sport. Hnath has a keen sense of ritual, the way some situations demand that we take on certain qualities or behave in ways that have nothing to do with our actual beliefs and commitments. The stakes are real, but the players are detached — outside observers to their own dramas.
Peter’s frantic harangues have their own special geometry and life, while Ray is a canny cipher whose goals shift with jack-rabbit quickness, and Coach digs the privileges of playing and saying coach-like things, whether they make sense or not. And then there's Ray’s ex-girlfriend, sports therapist and one-time drug connection (he is of course using PEDs) Lydia. By the time she enters the scene, you realize how stunning these stock characters can be when infused with actual, human desires.