Review by Elizabeth Warnimont
Special to the Herald
Lucas Hnath’s “Red Speedo,” Center Repertory Company’s current production at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, delves into the inner life of a competitive swimmer in an intense format – a single, poolside setting and a short, 80-minute time slot with no break for intermission – that is appropriate to the intense personal trauma set to unfold there with steadily-increasing urgency.
Gabriel Marin takes the lead as promoter-lawyer Peter, a driven, almost fanatical attorney desperate to improve his lot by promoting his pet Olympic hopeful Ray (Max Carpenter). Marin succeeds in teasing the audience with a nervous but initially contained, predictable demeanor that evolves dramatically as the story intensifies.
Carpenter parallels his counterpart with a deceptively meek, bottled-up aspect as his agent/promoter batters the swim coach (Michael Asberry as Coach) with his pitch in the opening scene, holding out in order to ease in the expression of his own personal power later as the driving forces behind his own tightly-packaged aspirations are revealed at successive intervals.
The minimal stage setting, a bare, grey-white backdrop wall and a small section of a swimming lane at stage front, increases the sense of tension by limiting opportunity for distraction from the central, personal crises of the two main players. Realistic sound effects add to the insidiously superficial arena atmosphere.
Coach appears at first timid, bulldozed over by his swimmer’s intense, angst-ridden agent. He can barely get in a word as Peter imposes his will, for the athlete and by extension for the swim club where he trains. He too, though, masks his true intentions and motivations until the ensuing turn of events draws them out. Ray’s girlfriend Lydia (Rosie Hallett), who exists mostly off-stage but makes pointed if brief appearances – also emerges as a key aspect of the triangulated passions that steer the inner course of Ray’s life and career.
“Speedo” establishes itself in its opening scene as a thing of only mild interest. Expectations are set at a low bar – but it’s a trick. The playwright succeeds in luring his audience in with soft strokes, setting them up to be startled and eventually riveted as assumptions are progressively shattered within the scope of the production’s brief allotted time.
Director Markus Potter brings on the best elements of the playwright’s tale, and the players do an extraordinary job bringing it to fiery life. While Marin nails his character’s desperation as the troubled staff attorney, it’s Carpenter who makes the most vivid and surprising turns as the supposed athlete pawn, eventually revealing a previously unseen complexity and sensibility.
The production’s R rating is based on some offensive language and one brief but graphic reference to errant sexual behavior.
All of the actors in the “The Red Speedo” are members of Actors’ Equity Association.
If you go
“Red Speedo” runs through Saturday, Feb. 24 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets are $48 to $52 and are available online at lesherartscenter.org or by calling 925-943-7469.