At Center Rep, 'Red Speedo' is a Terrifying Mask for Our Unethical Age

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.

Fans of Kabuki Theater love the emotion that its elaborate masks and makeup both contain and release. Red Speedo has a similar jolt. Everyone is perfectly what he or she is, and that allows for a freedom of spirit and a rather loose, amoral sense of ethics. Ray’s spiked blond hair, toned body and red speedo scream "Olympic swimmer." His image is as controlled and defined as any Hollywood casting agent could ever hope for, and yet his soul is something else.

Confessing to his brother that he’s been using PEDs, Ray equates them to “affirmative action” for lesser athletes. He claims that he isn’t breaking the rules because the rules state that the drugs will harm him and he’s just fine, and then he tries to cap off that bit of argumentative jiu-jitsu with some Buddhist philosophy. And that's just the start.

It’s an idiot’s performance, exactly what we would expect of Ray, and yet it works. By the time he finishes explaining the difficulty of his situation -- he has to dope up to have any chance of winning the next day’s race -- Peter has essentially thrown his life over to him. And this is the beauty of Red Speedo: that the fantasy of the most hackneyed clichés is more alluring than ethics, sense, or the actual living of a life.

I have to say one more thing: Center Rep is not known for producing daring plays, and I couldn’t help wonder after this sharp, smart production of Red Speedo why they would fill their schedule with Shirley Valentine and Disney’s Freaky Friday. If you’re capable of fun and complexity and excellence, as Center Rep clearly is with Red Speedo, it should be fought for and embraced.

‘Red Speedo’ runs through February 18, at the Dean Lesher Center in downtown Walnut Creek. For tickets and information click here.