By Stanford Friedman
The world of stage plays is full of quarrelsome brothers, but few are as codependent, yet totally unalike, as the pair to be found in the New York Theatre Workshop’s sharp-edged production of Red Speedo. Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney) is a plotting, broad shouldered and bearded attorney. In shirt sleeves and a tie, he talks a blue streak of legalese to his sibling Ray (Alex Breaux), who wears only a red speedo, speaks in one or two word sentences, is ripped, if worrisomely thin, and is hairless from the ears down. Ray is not the brightest bulb in the box but is on the verge of greatness, making the Olympic swim team if he can triumph in the trials. Contrastingly, Peter is at the end of his failed legal career, now using his brain to get a cut of the bonanza that Ray’s body will provide, if he wins, and the commercial endorsements start rolling in.
What the two men do have in common is the ability to stretch the truth and avoid personal responsibility. Ray, seemingly on a diet of nothing but baby carrots, feels he has no chance, in a sport where success is measured in finger lengths, without the help of illicit meds. Breaux portrays him with just the right mix of comic dopiness and cunning. And Peter is desperate enough to risk his brother’s health. Rooney manages to make Peter earnest and charismatic, despite his questionable morals. The two also have a woman in common. Lydia (Zoë Winters) was once a romantic interest of Ray’s and a litigious interest of Peter’s. Their differing affections for her provide the waterproof spark that brings this brisk 80 minutes of tension to an explosive conclusion.
Playwright Lucas Hnath and director Lileana Blain-Cruz have taken a decidedly Brechtian approach to the story. How do they emotionally distance the audience from the characters so as to emphasize the intellectual dilemma at hand? Let us count the ways. First and foremost, there is, literally, a moat between the stage and the house. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez has created an amazing single-lane pool that runs the width of the proscenium. A Plexiglas wall allows the audience to watch Ray gliding underwater. Oddly though, we are treated to very little swimming. Granted, this is no Esther Williams extravaganza, but, given the amount of work that constructing the pool must have taken, a little more backstroke by Breaux would have been welcome. The rest of Hernandez’s set involves a tall wall of slate gray tiles which catches the reflections off the pool in hypnotic splatters of light. Call it the world’s largest backsplash.
The second alienating feature is an extremely loud air horn used to mark the end of every scene. This effectively wipes your brain clean from any sympathetic thoughts that might have been building as the two brothers, Lydia, and Ray’s coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) take turns making waves. And the third and riskiest reminder that this is a play, not reality, involves the dialogue itself and how it’s delivered. Hnath’s script is full of wonderful little plot twists, and keen observations about what happens when brothers are in business together. But the actors are intentionally stilted in their delivery, consciously pausing just a beat too long in picking up their cues. The arguments between Ray and Peter thus sound like the first day of rehearsal for a particularly difficult early work of David Mamet. However, it provides the pleasantly unexpected result of making you replay each line in your head as they are fired off.
Red Speedo – By Lucas Hnath; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz.
WITH: Alex Breaux (Ray), Peter Jay Fernandez (Coach), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Peter) and Zoë Winters (Lydia).
Sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by Montana Blanco; lighting by Yi Zhao; sound by Matt Tierney; stage manager, Terri K. Kohler. Presented by New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Jeremy Blocker, managing director. Through April 3 at New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, 212-460-5475, http://nytw.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.