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No Performance-Enhancing Drugs Needed in Theatre [502]'s Strong, Swift 'Red Speedo'

Louisville'sTheatre [502]continues its mission to produce “recent and relevant” plays this month with the second production of their fourth season, an outstanding production of Lucas Hnath’s “Red Speedo.”Not a word is wasted in Hnath’s tight, emotional story about an aspiring Olympic swimmer who wins big while taking performance-enhancing drugs. Through the ensemble’s strong acting, direction and design, this swiftly-paced drama avoids making easy judgments on the morality of doping, asking the audience to consider the relative prices of loyalty and success instead.Directed by Theatre [502] co-artistic director Amy Attaway, “Red Speedo” runs at The Baron’s Theatre (131 W. Main St.) Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.Louisville audiences should be familiar with Hnath’s work by now—from his early 10-minute play “The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith,” he’s maintained a strong producing relationship with Actors Theatre of Louisville. He made his professional full-length debut in the 2012 Humana Festival of New American Plays with the end-of-life drama “Death Tax,” a runner-up for the American Theatre Critics Association’s Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, then returned the following year with the zero-gravity astronaut one-act “nightnight” in the apprentice showcase “Sleep Rock Thy Brain,” which Attaway co-developed and directed. Under the direction of artistic director Les Waters, Hnath rolled out his highly-acclaimed commissioned play “The Christians,” a play about theological changes-of-heart, at the Humana Festival earlier this year. (Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group just announced Waters will direct a second production of “The Christians” at Mark Taper Forum next year.)But “Red Speedo,” which premiered last fall at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre, might be my favorite yet. It’s a prime example of Hnath’s particular talent for peeling away the layers of his characters, like so many onions, until the true core of the story is revealed, but it’s also quite intimate­, focused tightly on two brothers and the people and choices that come between them.Theatre [502]’s resident design team transforms the intimate Baron’s Theatre into a realistic indoor poolside scene, with set designer Karl Anderson’s clean tile walls accentuated perfectly by lighting designer Jesse AlFord’s cool fluorescents. Scene changes are indicated by a blaring air horn, and sound designer Corey Harrison scores the entire play with the hypnotic sound of water lapping the edge of the pool.“Red Speedo” begins with a very clear problem: Coach (Joseph Hatfield) has found a stash of performance-enhancing drugs, which Olympic hopeful Ray (Michael Mayes) blames on another swimmer. Ray’s brother Peter (Jon Patrick O’Brien), an attorney who manages Ray, makes the case for Coach not to turn the matter over to the sports authorities, because even the suspicion of doping at the swim club might cloud Ray’s image, just as he’s on the brink of qualifying for the Olympics and inking an endorsement deal with Speedo.The opening scene between the three men unfolds in a dynamic Hnathian rhythm of broken dialog, punctuated flawlessly with Hatfield’s skeptical eyebrow, that manages to be both highly stylized and startlingly real. The tightly-coiled story charges forward in this way relentlessly, and Attaway conducts with a maestro’s touch. We learn quickly that those are actually Ray’s drugs, and he is convinced he needs them to win. “This is, whaddaya call it, science,” Ray explains. “You don’t know a thing about science,” Peter shoots back. And it’s true—Ray is all body and no smarts, or so he prefers everyone to believe, while Peter is the brains of the outfit. These are the roles the brothers have played their entire lives, and anyone with siblings—or just a fondness for the plays of Sam Shepard and Eugene O’Neill—knows how hard it can be to break character within the family unit. It’s easy for Ray to shrug responsibility off on Peter, but as he re-connects with his ex-girlfriend Lydia (Sarah East), a former sports therapist who introduced him to doping, we see just how in charge of his own story Ray is.Hatfield and East helped open Theatre [502]’s inaugural season with Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s blistering dark comedy “Hunter Gatherers,” and here they put their considerable comedic chops on the backburner to demonstrate strong, naked vulnerability and reveal the canny self-preservation skills of Coach and Lydia, the potential and actual collateral damage of Ray’s and Peter’s struggles for success.Theatre [502] mainstay Mayes plays the Ryan Lochte-styled Ray with deadpan comedic timing that barely conceals a simmering ferocity and frustration lurking right under the surface of his tattooed skin. (The giant sea serpent tattoo inked on Mayes’ back—a creation of costume designer Evan Prizant—is a thing of insane glory.) O’Brien’s a fast-talking foil, desperate for Ray to succeed so he can level the playing field out for his own kids and find some return on the many difficult investments he’s made. It’s a treat to see the talented, versatile O’Brien, who has appeared mostly in classical works around town—including a stand-out starring turn in Kentucky Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” this summer—in a contemporary role. When the brothers come undone, boy, do they. Hnath’s denouement, precisely staged by Attaway and fight director Eric Frantz, is viscerally satisfying.In a rare moment of clarity and wisdom, Ray reveals to Peter the heart of the play: “We all do things that are good, and things that are not so good.” We think we’re seeing a play about the pressures heaped on elite athletes to perform at the highest levels, but by the end Hnath reveals this is a play about loyalty and the price of the choices we make to protect our families, both given and chosen. It’s also a play about, as Ray calls it, “the American thing.” (“Dream?!” Peter corrects him, incredulously.) If the bootstrapping myth of America is that anyone can reach the highest levels of success through hard work and determination, what’s the harm in leveling a playing field that’s inherently unbalanced? In Hnath’s plays, there are no right answers, only compelling characters we root for in turn to come out ahead in the game.