October 10, 2013 | by Patrick Folliard
Weight of the world
Frank Boyd, Red Speedo, theater, Studio Theatre, gay news, Washington Blade

Frank Boyd as Ray in ‘Red Speedo.’ (Photo by Teddy Wolff; courtesy Studio Theatre)

‘Red Speedo’

Through Oct. 13

Studio Theatre

14th & P Streets, NW

$20

202-332-3300

Studiotheatre.org

Did he, or didn’t he? Will he, or won’t he? There’s a lot riding on Olympic swimming hopeful Ray’s actions. His every move ripples with ramifications for those closest to him. “Red Speedo,” Lucas Hnath’s new play at Studio Theatre, considers the high stakes of elite athletics and the pressure to win.

Tightly drawn, the 80-minute play takes place over a tense 24 hours. It starts on the eve of Ray’s Olympic qualifying meet. Performance-enhancing drugs have been discovered in the swim club’s refrigerator. Whose they are is unclear (at this point), but even the taint of mere association with the verboten synesthetic testosterone could put the kibosh on Ray’s swimming future and kill the lucrative endorsement deal he has pending with Speedo.

Not just Ray is invested in his future. Though not altogether clear on his argument, Ray’s older brother Peter (Thomas Jay Ryan) definitely has an agenda. As a lawyer and Ray’s self-appointed manager, he’s determined for Ray to succeed at all costs. Peter is intent on becoming a sports manager and that rests on Ray making it to the Olympics. Then there’s Ray’s longtime unnamed coach (Harry Winter). At first, coach seems judiciously disinterested, but it soon becomes clear that he’s counting heavily on his best swimmer to take them to the Olympics without juicing (or at least without anybody knowing about it).

Behind the blank stare and slightly agape mouth, Ray (the excellent Frank Boyd) is in fact dim — but not entirely so. When it comes to getting his way, Ray possesses a formidable single-mindedness, prompting him to fiercely go after what he wants, though he’s not always successful. This tenacious drive is revealed when he meets with ex-girlfriend Lydia (Laura C. Harris), a former sports therapist with a history involving selling illegal drugs.

The four-person cast is top notch with each actor effectively conveying both their characters’ unlikable aspects and vulnerabilities. They handle the work’s darker and lighter moments with equal skill, particularly Ryan as the almost likable but somewhat sleazy Peter, and Boyd as stolid Ray (who, by the way, looks great in the red Speedo that wears throughout the play).

Presented by the Studio Lab, “Red Speedo” is a stripped-down world premiere production with affordable tickets (just $20). The program allows playwrights in residence to experiment and collaborate on the work. Though already thought provoking and witty, Hnath’s play could benefit from a subtler more nuanced ending, and likely the author will make changes during the process. But even at this stage nothing looks or feels low budget about the production thanks to Lila Neugebauer’s able staging, the impressive cast and a terrific design team including Mimi Lien whose brightly lit set boasts real tiles, authentic pool ceiling lights, a big pace clock and working showers. She’s even managed to make Studio’s upstairs space smell like chlorine.

“We all do things that are sort of good and sort of not so good,” says Ray munching away at a bag of baby carrots. This sort of sums it all up. And along the way, Hnath asks the audience how far we might go in doing some “not so good” things in pursuit of fame, glory or just a modicum of security. It’s hard to say.

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