It’s hard to remember the halcyon days before most people assumed that some sort of doping scandal might lurk at all times behind any professional sport. Ah, that blithe, more innocent time when it didn’t seem obvious that Lance Armstrong was doping if he beat everyone else in races where so many of his competitors were doping. A time before the Oscar-winning 2017 sports-doping documentary Icarus.
That’s the level of disillusionment and fascination around the cycling scandal that was swirling in 2013, the year that Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo received its world premiere at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. Now, eight years later, in a much-altered world of art and sport consumption, Hnath’s Obie-winning, four-person, chlorine-soaked pressure cooker of a show is getting a gold-medal production at Actor’s Express through September 5.
The basic set-up is that champion swimmer Ray (Marlon Andrew Burnley) is about to compete in the Olympic qualifying finals. If he makes the cut, he will land a deal with swim apparel giant Speedo, one that promises to set him up, and everyone circling his career like sharks, for life. The only hitch is that performance-enhancing drugs have been discovered in a cooler in the swim club’s refrigerator.
Without spoiling the story’s many twists and turns, let’s say that what follows is a compelling meditation on fairness, ambition, opportunity, and rationalization — and what it means to get achingly close to much-dreamed-about victory, only to have that hope dashed by a fraction of a second.
With the recent conclusion of the postponed Tokyo Olympics, the kickoff to Actor’s Express’ 34th season (and its first in-person production since early 2020) is made more relevant by the gift of good timing. And not just because, yes, there was a Olympic doping scandal this year — in swimming, no less.
Rather, the themes in Hnath’s work that bubble to the surface in 2021 center on the question of who owns athletes’ lives and images and whether so much self-sacrifice, often at the expense of the very core of one’s self, is ever worth it.
Take, for instance, tennis champ Naomi Osaka and gymnastics GOAT Simone Biles, who made headlines this year for their gutsy moves to opt-out of competitions rather than remain in situations that threatened their mental health. The fact that their preference for self-care over self-sacrifice was met with such “controversy” and even ire or derision speaks volumes about how demanding spectators can be at the expense of empathy.
The feeling that you own your life and body less and less the more famous you get, along with the gnawing fear that beyond the one thing you do exceptionally well, you may hold no value — these themes stand out in “Red Speedo” and seem more timely than ever.
Also notable about the production is that it features a majority-Black cast, whose thoughtful performances bring out new layers and dimensions to segments of dialogue on privilege and aspiration — especially since most iterations of this work have been historically overwhelmingly white, like the sport around which the play centers.
Red Speedo opens with a brilliant and funny monologue delivered with a mixture of uncertainty and improvisation spiked with salesmanship and bravado by Brian Ashton Smith as Peter, Ray’s brother, a lawyer who aspires to be in sports management. He’s pitching the sacrifice that Ray has put into swimming as a ploy to get the coach to do what Peter wants about the drug situation — flush it, literally and figuratively.
“He spends so much of his time in the water, his skin is PERMANENTLY SHRIVELED,” Peter insists.
“It’s not that bad,” Ray counters calmly.
As Ray, Burnley not only deftly handles the Herculean task of having to be on stage for 80 minutes with no intermission in just a one-piece (the titular red Speedo) but at points embodies Willy Loman levels of delusion and desperation. Much like underrated film actor LaKeith Stanfield, Burnley can convey five different emotions in a single look or surprise you with a single line delivery.
Another standout in the all-around stellar cast is Rob Cleveland as the coach, who delivers a master class in character slow-burn. He maneuvers stealthily between the projection of a kind-hearted coach who has the well-being of the protégé he has mentored for years at heart and something more self-serving and ambitious.
At its core, the play is also an addiction story, about the ever lowering of rock bottom and the manipulation and deceit it takes to continue with whatever it is you’re addicted to, be it substances, people, experiences or feelings.
There is a rapid-fire style to Hnath’s writing, where people trip over each other in a heightened version of real-life banter. But what works best about the script is how he reconstructs the awkward randomness through which people process and justify their actions.
This comes through most clearly in Ray’s meandering story about realizing he’s afraid of his physical limitations as a swimmer by recalling a time he drew “hand turkeys” with kids during a Thanksgiving volunteer gig. It’s like seeing live and in-person exactly how our brains work when we’re trying to dance around an unwanted truth.
And then there’s a spectacular fight, which drags on well past what you expect and has lulls and surges where the characters grow tired, losing their breath and stumbling, occasionally locking eyes as if to check whether the other is ready to throw in the towel — just people whose jobs don’t involve knowing when to throw a punch hurling their bodies in pure rage. It seems to go on forever, and, compliments of the strong fight choreography, you can’t look away.
The big question is: Are we willing to allow our most accomplished athletes control over their own lives? Under Freddie Ashley’s able direction, that tension between an adoring yet entitled audience — longing for the fairy tale even when that fairy tale is highly improbable — and the athlete longing to be deemed worthy enough makes this a fascinating and, at times, moving piece of theater.
Without question, the experience of simply getting to see live theater again, without barriers to the actors or the emotions they’re wearing, adds to this production’s emotional punch. Coming through the wringer of the last year, it’s a reassuring feat of endurance that live theater has returned in such fine shape.
(Note: Actor’s Express ticket holders are required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test no more than 48 hours old to enter the theater.)