By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
If manipulation were an Olympic sport, the characters in Red Speedo would medal. Theatre Exile's fascinating production of this drama by Lucas Hnath is about a swimmer with Olympic aspirations and a dependence on performance enhancing drugs.
Ray (Brian Ratcliffe) is a none-too-bright athlete who has no skills other than swimming; he arrives onstage and poolside, chest shaved, in a red speedo, sporting a major tattoo. Colin McIlvaine's impressive set gives us the corner of a regulation pool, muted light through long windows, and a faint whiff of chlorine.
Ratcliffe's performance as Ray hovers between a kind of blank, naive incomprehension and the wilyness of a naughty child—whose naughtiness extends to a criminal record involving manslaughter among an assortment of other bad behaviors.
His brother Peter ( Keith Conallen), a rich lawyer in a good suit, has bailed him out of every stupid misstep until, as the play opens, we discover that the Coach (Leonard C. Haas), in bermuda shorts and a whistle, has found a cooler full of performance enhancing drugs. Peter unleashes a stunning monologue of vile lawyering until Coach shuts him down with a high-toned speech about "ethical responsibility." One of the many remarkable aspects of Conallen's performance is that we can see Peter's mind calculate the pros and cons of any sudden setback.
It will emerge that Peter has arranged a very lucrative sportsmodel deal for Ray with Speedo, a deal likely to make everybody rich and famous-- unless , of course, it is crushed by a doping scandal. But as Ray, no slouch in the betraying department himself, says, "I don't care if they're making fun of me because if I have money I can be a real person." Add to this swamp of greed, desperation and ambition, Ray's ex-girlfriend Lydia (Jaylene Clark Owens), a sports therapist who was his illegal pharmaceutical connection.
Red Speedo is not really about sports doping but it's about these characters whose craven manipulations create a culture of moral compromise, consoling themselves with this amoral credo: "When you do what's best for you, everyone benefits."
Deborah Block's direction specializes in tense and excellent pauses, and J. Alex Cordaro has choreographed one of the most realistic and terrifying onstage fights I've ever seen. Conallen and Ratcliffe pull it off dramatically as well as theatrically, making the fight deepen their character portraits. It seems a shame that music distracts from the appalling and ambiguous conclusion.