Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Swimsuit competition


Gabriel Marin, left, and Max Carpenter plays brothers with a troublesome relationship in the Center Rep production of Lucas Hnath's "Red Speedo." Photo:
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You wouldn't want this guy as your lawyer. Not only does his defense introduce extraneous belittlements of his client, it is filled with start-and-stop phrases that don't quite get to their point before lurching off in a new direction. If he were a cartoon character, large drops of sweat would be flying off his forehead into the jury box. But we are poolside, not in a court of law, and his client also happens to be his brother standing before us mute and naked save for the microscopic swimsuit that gives Lucas Hnath's sleek morality tale its title.

In "Red Speedo," Ray is an Olympic hopeful who finds a promising career on the line when his coach discovers a stash of performance-enhancing drugs in the club's refrigerator. His brother Peter is already negotiating an endorsement deal with Speedo and his own ticket out of an unloved job as an attorney. Whether or not the drugs belonged to Ray, and the brothers try to put the blame on another swimmer, if the coach reports his discovery to the proper authorities, all swimmers under his tutelage will be tarred. No glory, no medals, and no Speedo deal.

In 80 intense minutes, Hnath lays out the snowballing cost of a series of ethical compromises. "When you go for what you want, when you think about yourself, when you do what's best for you, everyone benefits," says Peter early in the play, but by its end, any remaining rewards are slim pickings even for scavengers.

In a sharp and stylish production at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Center Rep is presenting the West Coast premiere of "Red Speedo." First seen off-Broadway in 2016, it's the Bay Area's second look at the young playwright's already prodigious resume. San Francisco Playhouse presented "The Christians," a very different look at right and wrong, and among the works we have to look forward to are the intriguingly titled "A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney" and the audaciously conceived Ibsen sequel "A Doll's House, Part 2," which marked Hnath's recent Broadway debut.

While Hnath's plays examine fundamental issues of human behavior, they do so in very different ways. With "Red Speedo," you'd be forgiven if David Mamet came to mind, especially in the opening scene as Peter's defense of his brother becomes a steamrolling monologue filled with the verbal tics and flexible integrity often found in Mamet's characters. But Hnath affirms his own voice as the play proceeds, as rationalizations and justifications become the lingua franca.

Even the docile swimmer Ray, who his own brother acknowledges is not too bright and has no other marketable skills, has convinced himself that it would be an unfair disadvantage is he were to be denied testosterone-boosting supplements. After finding a way to measure the finger lengths of his fellow teammates, he concluded those with the longest fingers had the best times. "It's like affirmative action," he says, since his finger lengths come up on the short side.

With a sliver of a water-filled pool at the front of the stage in Dipu Gupta's set of blank-canvas sterility, the full focus is on the four characters who combine in different permutations in the series of short scenes. Working with a cast who clearly get the characters, director Markus Potter carefully modulates the script's increasing intensity until an explosion of less-than-convincingly-staged violence.

Gabriel Marin oozes with authentically rendered sleaze as Ray's self-serving brother, while Max Carpenter, with a body ready for a Speedo ad, is able to play both dumb and shrewd as Ray, whose gracefulness seems limited to water. As the swim coach, a stalwart Michael Asberry displays the strongest ethical boundaries, which turn out to be more problematically complex as the play proceeds. Rosie Hallett effectively appears in one scene as Ray's former girlfriend and steroid provider with her own specific agenda.

"Red Speedo" certainly whets the appetite for more plays by Hnath to make their ways westward. He seems to recognize where we bury our metaphorical bodies, and while he digs into those places, the audience becomes a participant in any judgments to be made.


"Red Speedo" will run through Feb. 24 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Tickets are $40-$52, available at


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