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A CurtainUp Review
Red Speedo
If I have money I can be like a real person. —Ray
Red Speedo
Brian Ratcliffe (Photo credit: Paola Noguera)
Funny, serious, tough, and dire, this new play's got crunch. Red Speedo is just the kind of chow Theatre Exile eats for breakfast.

It's about Ray (Brian Ratcliffe) who's a champion swimmer, his brother the lawyer (Keith Conallen), his coach (Leonard C. Haas), and his former girlfriend (Jaylene Clark Owens). On the eve of Olympic trials Coach discovers performance enhancing drugs in the pool house refrigerator, and therein lies a tale.

Colin McIlvaine's set must have happened by magic in the old former garage that is Studio X. It looks just like part of a modern sports complex, airy clean and uncluttered. A serene lap pool lit from a false ceiling dominates the space. Lighting designer Drew Billiau has outdone himself with the light and reflections. And this is a situation where a tech director finally gets print. Joseph Daniels deserves a lot of credit. I don't know how he did it.

Most of the play's action lies in discourse, but a subtle potential threat hangs over the tranquil practice pool. And you know J. Alex Cordero (fight choreographer) isn't listed in the program for nothing.

The star swimmer's need for performance enhancing drugs swims across the agitated surface of Lucas Hnath's play. It's the public issue that links all the characters' hopes and problems. But surprisingly, this isn't an investigation of the choice to dope or not to dope, nor is it a political discussion of banned substance use. It's not even really about incentives to become the face (or more accurately in this case, the behind) of a brand.

Convolutions of circumstance put everyone in a serious bind. The characters are backed into carefully set up, impossible situations which may or may not be resolved. Ray knows he's no champion without certain pharmaceuticals. Brian Ratcliffe handles the role well as he goes through Ray's belated, recently speeded up maturation process. And he begins to emerge from monosyllabic - to barely communicative - to becoming articulate when it matters. BTW, Ratcliffe can also definitely handle 90 minutes performing in only a Speedo and a tattoo.

Leonard C. Haas's coach looks and acts every bit the coach. He's a good man. Could his ambitions sell him out? Keith Conallen's lawyer character pushes for a new lucrative gig instead of the law game, but he doesn't really want to get disbarred for some of his other activities.

In this well constructed work there's undertow and situations are more complicated than they first appear to be, as everyone seems to be in it for him or herself. Everyone needs Ray and the characters see others as obstacles to get around. Where to draw the line when linked self-interests collide? Motives are exposed, and things get worse as they go along. Everyone is in an extremity where there are no longer easy ways out or viable and desirable answers. Much of the credit for the flow of the production goes to director Deborah Block for her sensitivity to the play. Many funny moments occur where you appreciate the playwright's clever construction of a line and the director's with-it timing of a response.

The partly obliterated name of Ray's former girlfriend, Lydia, can still be made out under his huge serpent tattoo. Lydia (Jaylene Clark Owens) wants a law case reopened. She wasn't innocent, but the case was compromised by Ray's lawyer brother. She wants Ray to do something about it if he wants anything from her. And he does want something from her. Each of these actors shines separately. But unfortunately the combo of Ratcliffe and Owens' Ray and Lydia is a weak point. Not only estranged, they're like complete strangers - plus she could deck this athlete. Because they just aren't buyable as a once and future item, when an offstage romantic interlude is reported by Ray, it's difficult to imagine.

Riding on top of the content, the playwright unabashedly plays with language and toys with styles of talking. Keith Conallen's long monologues are engineered spoofs of sleazeball lawyer-salesman types. His diatribes pick up speed, and the more earnestly they're delivered, the funnier they get. Entertainingly apoplectic, at any moment Conallen might pop in a Gene Wilder-esque fit. Other examples of Hnath's language sampling include an amusing and very specific "I'm like" dialogue, and examples of coach-speak.

To those looking for answers to questions that the play isn't really asking the abrupt ending may not appear to resolve the issues. It could look like the playwright has left all the problems out there.

But when you break the play down into its component parts the ending accrues substance. If you're a slow twister like me, you suddenly realize that it's been all about the other stuff all along, not about doping per se. The swimmer grows up. And when one of these other self-interested people can break through all the noise and posturing and mendacity to actually hear someone else and to see himself for who he is, what he has done, and for what, the play has found a resolution.

Red Speedo by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Deborah Block

Cast: Brian Ratcliffe, Keith Conallen, Leonard C. Haas, Jaylene Clark Owens
Scenic Design: Colin McIlvaine
Lighting Design: Drew Billiau
Costume Design: Rachel Coon
Sound Designer: Christopher Colucci
Technical Director: Joseph Daniels
Fight Choreographer: J. Alex Cordaro
Oct 30 - Nov 23
90 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 11/05/2014 performance. Theatre Exile, Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets, Philadelphia.
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