Red Speedo By Lucas Hnath, Directed by Lila Neugebauer At Studio Theatre to Oct. 13 At Studio, a taut and twisty play about juicing

Different Strokes: Has Ray been juicing to make the Olympics?

Messy doings make for a tidy play in Red Speedo, a drama of compromised choices in what’s meant to be a clean and simple competition. At 80 minutes and some change, it’s a taut exercise—but in what?

Story construction, let’s say: Playwright Lucas Hnath sets up what looks at first like a simple right-and-wrong conflict, with an Olympic-hopeful swimmer (Frank Boyd) whose pending swimwear endorsement hits a snag when his coach (Harry A. Winter) stumbles upon somebody’s stash of performance-enhancers. Has Ray been juicing? That will be revealed shortly, as will more about the motivations and machinations of coach, athlete, and athlete’s lawyer brother, not to mention the girlfriend who’s ditched him under circumstances that can only be described as fraught.

Hnath has fun inviting the audience to measure each one of these people against a clear moral “ought-to,” then putting both characters and audience in a bind that bends or shortens the ruler. Bad calls, they will most certainly be made. But will the outcomes be precisely the corrupt ones we expect? What exactly constitutes “fair,” in any case, in a contest where everything from diet to mindset can shape outcomes measured in milliseconds?

If Hnath’s equivalencies and efficiencies ultimately make the play feel a bit like a Rube Goldberg contraption—its tight construction, its scrupulous balance of first X but then Y because of course Z, are almost more the stuff of well-timed farce than of honest human drama—they are on point in a world that makes idols of its sportsmen and rewards them with much more than medals when they win. And the plot’s complications, whether you find them unlikely or not, are awfully fun to discover as they unfold.

Hnath has a way with vivid stream-of-consciousness dialogue, a facility that’s especially entertaining in the hands of Thomas Jay Ryan as Ray’s shady sibling, whose rationalizations and rethinks and reboots play out in real time, so the audience can follow along aghast. (What would we do, we of the theater and of this our swampy capital, without lawyers to feel superior to?)

Winter is avuncular and sober, as is his wont, right up until Coach’s own self-interest makes itself apparent. Boyd is appealingly lunkish as Ray, who’s about as bright as a bag of hair but somehow sweet and even a little vulnerable. Ryan is the staging’s showhorse, doing impressive work both technically and emotionally, while Laura C. Harris makes guarded distrust a shield when that girlfriend turns up.

The production, a project of the budget-minded Studio Lab initiative, feels agreeably substantial—more so than it strictly needs to, what with the working shower and the stretch of poolside tile designer Mimi Lien has provided. (There’s nice, unobtrusively echoey work from sound designer Christopher Baine, too.) When Hnath finds a way to dial Red Speedo’s ending back from the sudden, unearned melodrama that makes its existential perils all too boringly physical, he might have a play that’s the setting’s clean, unfussy equal.

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