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Lucas Hnath's new show puts an athlete on display
Welcome to Building Character, our look at actors and how they create their roles
Watching Red Speedo means contemplating Ray's body. The lead character in Lucas Hnath's new play, he's an Olympic-level swimmer, so it's tempting to reduce his whole identity to his physique. Plus, he spends the entire 80-minute show – now at New York Theatre Workshop – wearing nothing but the titular bathing suit. No t-shirt. No robe. Not even a pair of flip-flops. Even though the other characters are fully clothed, the swimmer is on perpetual display.
"It separates me from the rest of the cast," says Alex Breaux, who plays him. "Their value is judged by something very different than Ray's value."
That sense of "value" drives the plot, which hinges on Ray taking performance-enhancing drugs. Underneath this infraction is his desperate need to be something else – to live with a girlfriend and a dog instead of enduring all-day practices and the relentless pressure to win. But can he really get beyond his Olympic life? Can anyone else? Once we've defined someone by their athleticism, it can be hard to appreciate what's inside them, and by forcing us to keep looking at his protagonist's body, Hnath dares us not to be distracted by it.
It matters, too, that Ray is written to seem a little dumb, struggling for the right words or sounding remarkably naive. This helps the other characters dehumanize him – to treat him like an object in their own quest for success. It also invites the audience to chuckle at the kid, affording him less worth because he doesn't have the savvy of the people wearing clothes.
"Ray is easy to underestimate because he may come across as dense or inarticulate," says Breaux. "But he's very articulate. He's articulate physically. And that articulation is important for the audience to see. That way, they don't lose sight of the fact that this guy is a genius in some ways. Distance athletes who are doing rote movements – swimming, running, rowing – have to be able to drop into a flow state very quickly. Because if you were conscious of every single repetition you're doing day after day, you would go crazy. And that spaciness, for lack of a better word, serves these athletes. It serves Ray."
In other words, maybe Ray's near-nakedness is not only a statement about how others perceive him, but also a reminder of how he expresses himself. "When you rip him out of the water and start asking him questions, you're changing the rules of the game," Breaux says. "It's like if you were dropped into a Speedo and told to go to the Olympic trials. You would look foolish as well. Having him in that Speedo speaks to all that."
Part of Breaux's preparation has been thinking through these ideas, which feel even more urgent during the play's alarming final section. As he explains, "It's been the most satisfying challenge to approach Lucas's script – which asks so much of you in terms of analysis and critical thinking – in service of a character who comes across as dense."
But it's not all brain work. To portray Ray, Breaux needs to look like an Olympic swimmer, and he says the physical training has taken him deeper into the role. Discussing his own fitness regimen, he says, "It has shown me what kind of wavelength this guy lives on and where his mind goes. There's a spiritual rigor behind that kind of willpower, but there's also this grotesqueness. Because if you're going for perfection, there's no room in your life for anything else. I've personally felt that pinch of spending prime energy on workouts, but also needing to rehearse and perform. It's helped me to understand this guy."
Then there's the swimming. Just below the main playing space, the set for this production features a long swimming pool with clear walls, so that we can see Breaux as he occasionally paddles around. It's a striking visualization of the world where Ray feels most comfortable, and it has given the actor some crucial insights.
"I start the play, and I swim," Breaux says. "I can hear the air horn. I can hear the music. But it's distant. It's not in the water. And I think about that for Ray: He's very active internally, even though externally he doesn't always express himself eloquently. In the pool, I'm in beast mode all the time, but outside the water, that's where I don't have my footing."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Red Speedo. Go here to browse our current offers.
Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Zoë Winters and Alex Breaux