All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Stupidity threatens to take a severe toll on three lives as playwright Lucas Hnath demonstrates that ignorance does not lead to bliss in his funny, sidewinding tale, “Red Speedo,” given a sharp production directed by Deborah Block at Theatre Exile.
Hnath, bitten by the Mamet bug, unfolds his play in fast scenes in which two or more of the characters have conversations that could be laced with expletives but that, more importantly, look at corruption from the points of view of the clever, the opportunistic, the desperate, and the just plain dumb.
Ray, played with thrilling benightedness and a kind of unwitting innocence in a breakthrough performance by Brian Ratcliffe, is a swimmer of Olympic caliber who has beaten both Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in events and is about to face Olympic trials for imminently upcoming games.
Ray is like the Pete Rose of swimmers. He is not a big or as strong as other competitors, but he strives to please his brother, an attorney who is also his manager, and his coach, a by-the-book kind of guy who believes in rules and discipline but who is also struggling to keep his pool and training center afloat.
Ray may have unusual athletic ability, but he is as dumb as paint. He has all kinds of tics and rituals, but he doesn’t have confidence or much of a conscious. An ex-girlfriend of his, a sports therapist, introduced him to human growth drugs, which, of course, she sold. Ray has been taking them, uncaught, and believes they are the sole difference between him winning or losing a heat. When his supply dries up, because the former girlfriend isn’t speaking to him, and because his coach has found drugs in the center’s refrigerator and is debating whether to alert competitive swimming officials or not, Ray is sure he will not perform well enough to qualify for an Olympic berth. He more believes he will come out fourth or fifth in races, as he did before he began doping.
You see the conflicts right away. The coach doesn’t know whose drugs he’s found. Ray, as a dodge, tells him they belong to another swimmer who has few hopes of international competition anyhow. Ray’s brother, a bit of a shark, doesn’t want the coach to report the drugs at all, not because he thinks they’re Ray’s, but because he just signed an agreement with Speedo, a swim suit company, that guarantees Ray a sweetheart of an endorsement deal if Ray makes the Olympic team. Ray, in perpetual cluelessness that doesn’t prevent him from suggesting or doing the idiotic, wants the coach to give the drugs to his brother, Peter, for alleged safekeeping, his real desire being to have access to the drugs for his use.
Corruption follows corruption and folly follows folly in “Red Speedo,” which, in a natural way, become more convoluted as it proceeds, Hnath always finding more one curve to redirect his characters and pose them a new quandary. The writing is taut, and even though you should see some the complications coming, they seem fresh when they arrive. Block’s production is as canny as Hnath’s play, and you do a lot of thinking yourself as you consider who is right in a situation and what would be the best course to take.
As “Red Speedo” goes on, you become immersed in the various layers of wrongdoing, rationalization, best policy, and personal repercussions that propel the play. You see clearly what’s happening and may be surprised by what you hope is the outcome.
Every character is at a crossroads in “Red Speedo.” Ray’s next swim, the one that determines whether he’s an Olympian or not, is equally critical to Ray, Peter, and the coach. If Ray makes the team, he is an instant star and, even as an amateur, can begin raking in money that will more than make up for the cost of his training, travel, equipment, and inability to take a job.
Peter has been supporting Ray financially on a personal and professional level. In his brief case, he has a signed promise from Speedo that makes Ray a company spokesman. He also has the prototype of the red bathing trunks — well, bathing bikini — that has become Ray’s symbol during his tryouts. These are emblazoned on the right butt cheek by a copy of the humungous tattoo of a serpent Ray has running from the nape of his neck to his right thigh. (Ray, thinking again, got the tattoo because he thought it would distinguish him from other swimmers and be quickly identifiable on overhead TV cameras. He is correct in that logic, but the move shows the boneheaded side of Ray who doesn’t know the difference between cool and trashy.)
Peter, as Ray’s agent, stands to profit mightily from Ray’s success. His percentage from the Speedo deal will be enough for him to quit the law firm he hates and launch a career representing a number of athletes. Besides, Ray has betrayed Peter in a way that can lead to him being disgraced and disbarred. Peter’s future, and that of his wife and two children, rides more than ever on Ray’s success at the preliminaries and in the Olympics.
The coach has less of a conundrum, but his burdens weigh on him. Having Ray among his swimmers is about the only thing that keeps his training center open. Peter keeps threatening to take Ray to another aquatic complex with another coach, a move that would ruin the man who worked to bring Ray to a point he is worthy of national attention or a Speedo endorsement. He, in his way, has as much at stake as Ray or Peter in Ray making the Olympics.
Ray’s former girlfriend is through with him but sees a chance to benefit if she can persuade Ray to swear an affidavit about an incident that lost her a therapist’s license and prevents her from working.
Everyone needs or wants something that will change his or her life positively, and their fulfilling their desire all depends on Ray.
The question becomes what will happen if Ray is exposed as a doper or if he has his confidence about winning shaken by not taking the drugs he thinks he needs before diving in for his critical tryout race. That is the stuff of “Red Speedo,” and Hnath and Block will, in his or her own way, keep you entertained as you negotiate the coils of corruption and establish your opinion about matters depicted on stage.
Block’s production is bright, lit by Drew Billiau to have the stark fluorescence of a pool. Characters at first speak in a Mamet-like staccato in which sentences remain unfinished and one thought triggers another. Later, when there’s levelling to do, the dialogue becomes more direct and infused with a different kind of passion, desperate instead of argumentative.
The entire Exile cast is excellent, but the centerpiece is Ratcliffe’s Ray, who dopiness and doping the actor displays to the tiniest nuance.
Ratcliffe makes stupidity ingenuous. Even when Ray has, out of sheer idiocy, made serious trouble for several people, Ratcliffe makes you like him. He doesn’t play the part as if Ray was a dolt. He plays Ray as if he were an innocent puppy who doesn’t know better and thinks it’s a good idea to knock over the flour canister and romp in the cool white powder.
Ratcliffe gets an excited look every time Ray gets a brainstorm he thinks is the solution to a thorny situation. The swimmer is convinced he can manage his life even if no one around him, including the Exile audience, agrees with him. He also becomes sheepish and rationalizing when his ideas backfire and make matters worse. Ratcliffe shows why Ray has to be dependent even as his character rebels against being told what to do and being treated as if there’s only one thing he’s useful for, swimming for high reward, which is true.
Clad almost constantly in the red speedo bikini that makes him seem a bit more vulnerable, Ratcliffe makes Ray adorable. You want to embrace him and take care of him even when he has provoked justified anger and is on the brink of ruining everybody’s life.
The choice to make Ray sweet in his addled state is better than making him brutish or tough, another tack that Hnath’s script would support. Ray’s dependency on others to keep him existing like a capable human being transfers to us. We in the audience want to protect Ray from himself and from others who may hurt him.
Hnath sometimes makes us wonder who those others are. We ask if Peter truly has Ray’s interest at heart or how much the coach values Ray as part of his stable. Self-interest is very much the crux of “Red Speedo,” so it’s important to sort it out.
Ratcliffe’s insouciance serves his character and “Red Speedo” well. He seems comfortable in his near-nakedness, as a swimmer would, especially one sporting a gigantic tattoo. It also makes us forgive a lot of Ray’s trespasses, even as we worry about what harm they may do on a wider plane. Ratcliffe’s is a good, thoughtful performance that shows stupidity and inexperience for what it is.
Keith Conallen adds to his collection of fine portrayals as Peter, Ray’s beleaguered brother who is so competent in dealing with the coach and with Speedo but has to contend with a client, also his sibling, who could bring his entire world crashing down in a way that might make it impossible to reconstruct.
Conallen is tiger-like in his firmness with the coach about drugs he doesn’t yet know are Ray’s. Lawyerlike, he makes argument after argument and threat after threat. The actor turns feverish when confronted with some of Ray’s other moronic acts, particularly one that could get him disbarred. Conallen’s is a solid portrayal that shows a man who can use his wits and bring order to things his brother threatens to destroy.
Leonard C. Haas is all tight-lipped rigidity as the coach, who insists he has to take the proper action concerning the drugs he’s found and who goes toe-to-toe with Peter about Ray transferring to another training facility.
Haas retains his serious demeanor at times when others are distressed and shows the coach is among those who knows where his interests lie and will be loath to jeopardize them if pushed to make a decision.
Jaylene Clark Owens lets you her guile as Ray’s ex, Lydia. This is a woman who is out to prove a point and wants to draw blood if she can. Ray sees her as a means to a much desired end and is willing to let Lydia rant because he can’t see the bigger picture or its repercussions as much as he is aware of his immediate objective, which he believes he is about to achieve because of his ingenuity.
“Red Speedo” is a smart entertainment. It’s breezy enough to involve you in its various discussion and to make you think about how you would tolerate or deal with corruption that is rife through Hnath’s play. It wouldn’t surprise if you being arguing the merits of various people’s cases as you walk from the theater.
Colin McIlvaine’s set includes a swimming pool, and Exile’s seating specifies a splash zone. Ratcliffe playfully splashed a friend of his during curtain calls. Rachel Coon’s costumes, Speedo and all, are perfect for the characters, particularly Haas’s white polo shirt over black shorts with white calf-length socks, a conservative and foolproof way to say “coach.”
Alex Cordero stages a heady fight scene between Ray and Peter, one that makes you truly worry whether Peter is going to end Ray’s hopes by injuring him or causing him to get injured. Christopher Colucci’s music captures the setting and tone of Block’s production and Hnath’s play.
“Red Speedo” runs through Sunday, November 23, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street (13th and Reed), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $37 and can be obtained by calling 215-218-4022 or by visiting www.theatreexile.org.