‘Red Speedo’ review: Lucas Hnath’s smartly written play

For the New York premiere of Lucas Hnath’s new play “Red Speedo,” which revolves around a swimmer whose Olympic aspirations are threatened by accusations of using performance-enhancement drugs, New York Theatre Workshop has built a see-through water tank that spans the entire width of the stage.

The tank is an impressive touch, and the lead actor swims a lap or two in it, but the real reasons to see “Red Speedo” lie in Hnath’s lean and muscular writing, his complicated characters, and their desperate situations and morally questionable responses, all of which comes to light in Lineana Blain-Cruz’s brutally focused production.

Hnath entered the radar of up-and-coming playwrights earlier this season with his provocative drama “The Christians” at Playwrights Horizons. “Red Speedo,” though not as divisive as “The Christians” (which may be a good thing), is still an unsettling and highly engrossing work.

It begins immediately after a bag of drugs has been discovered. Ray (Alex Breaux), a tattooed, inarticulate swimmer, says that it belongs to a teammate, but Ray’s protective brother Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney) wants Ray’s longtime coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) to drop the matter entirely, fearing it could hurt Ray’s shot at a big-time endorsement deal. Not coincidentally, Peter would earn a commission on the deal.

In order to avoid plot spoilers, let’s just say that bombshells soon pour out of the characters, and Ray’s ex-girlfriend Lydia (Zoe Winters), whose career was destroyed in her own drug scandal, enters the picture.

After about 80 minutes of defensive argumentation from each character, betrayals and moral compromises, the play ends with an extended fight sequence. Hnath knows how and when to use words. And by that point, words can’t save anyone, so fists are used instead.

If you go

“Red Speedo” plays at New York Theatre Workshop through March 27. 79 E. 4th St., nytw.org