Chlorine. It’s an unmistakable, pervasive odor that greets audience members climbing the stairwell up to the Studio Lab’s production of Red Speedo. It’s one of those scents that taps instantly into memory, permeating everything. For some it brings to mind the leisure of a summer swimming pool, for others the heady competition of swim meets. Here it’s the latter that’s being evoked, and with it, a dose of ethics. There’s a queasy sensation that rises up when your sense of what is right is pitted against your sense of what is wrong. In the heat of competition, moral and physical fiber can be in opposition.
Red Speedo dives into a pretty deep pool of complex arguments, and in doing so owes a great deal to Greek drama, both in its format and in its unabashed way of piling on those arguments ever higher. From the first segment, when a lengthy monologue gives way to a staccato two-character exchange, to the final striking betrayals, it has a Sophoclean air. Lucas Hnath’s play is having its world premiere at Studio Theatre’s Studio Lab, and with all tickets at twenty dollars it’s well worth the eighty minutes of heavy moral quicksand. For the most part, Hnath sticks to scenes between two characters as they continually delude themselves and each other through dilemmas that warp the moral compass. Over it all, that whiff of chlorine heightens the queasy feeling right to the end.
Unless you love the smell of chlorine. In which case, the ends may justify the means. Who can say? It’s that kind of play.
It’s the day before the Olympic trials, and competitive swimmer Ray (Frank Boyd), his brother Peter (Thomas Jay Ryan), his coach (Harry A. Winter), and his ex-girlfriend Lydia (Laura C. Harris) embark on a twenty-four hour journey through the hottest argument in sports ethics – where is the line between fair and unfair advantage? As with her brilliant work on The Aliens at Studio Theatre last year, Lila Neugebauer directs this strong cast in a style of heightened, painful naturalism. It’s uncertain whether the play’s merits would stand as strong with a lesser production team, however, as the rising ethical stakes might seems too melodramatic in other hands. Here, everyone effectively conveys their personal struggles of deception and perception, with Winter especially striking the keynote of perfect, almost Pinteresque nuance as the coach.
The production design is as unforgiving as it is inspired. The combination of set designer Mimi Lien’s pale blue swimming pool tiles and lighting designer Dan Covey’s gymnasium fluorescents is as unforgiving as the real thing. It’s a background that fittingly puts performance front-and-center, with no room for anything but truth from the quartet. A sea serpent tattoo in Meghan Raham’s costume design, the occasion swimming pool echo by sound designer Christopher Baine, and sickeningly realistic fight choreography by Robb Hunter, round it all out. It’s deceptively simple.
Though the plot’s density of moral dilemmas may stretch credulity, overall it’s an experiment in naturalism that I admire. Studio Lab certainly continues to impress with its commitment to producing new plays at low ticket prices with a high caliber of cast and design.
Studio Lab’s production of Red Speedo performs at the Studio Theatre now through October 13. The Studio Theatre is located at 1501 14th Street NW, Washington DC 20005. All tickets $20. Closest Metro stop: Dupont Circle (Red line), McPherson Square (Orange/Blue lines), U Street/Cardozo/African-American Civil War Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-332-3300.