The world loves winners. Losers, not so much.
Red-hot playwright Lucas Hnath toys with this dispiriting but essential fact of life in his 2013 play “Red Speedo,” being given its Southern California premiere by the Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood.
In his plays “The Christians” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Hnath has dug into society’s bedrock, questioning whether long-perpetuated notions about, respectively, religion and womanhood are still useful and testing what happens when people try to shake things up.
“Red Speedo” envisions a rising-star swimmer in danger of being swept into a doping scandal on the eve of the Olympic trials. Fairness, loyalty and team spirit are tested; aspirations warp into seductions. Regardless of how things play out, one thing above all becomes clear: Hunger for success can be the most perilous performance-enhancing drug of all.
That’s a fascinating premise, and Hnath slyly teases out its implications. At times he turns the plot into a sort of game, upending the audience’s expectations and all but yelling, “Gotcha!” Too often, though, he plays fast and loose with logic, straining believability.
The Road’s production is strongly acted, and its set design is as arresting as anything you’re likely to see on L.A.’s smaller stages. Yet here too, something is off-kilter. Seizing a bit too enthusiastically on the humor in the writing, director Joe Banno sets a disproportionately goofy tone that undermines the seriousness of Hnath’s ideas.
Stephen Gifford’s scenic design, enhanced by Derrick McDaniel’s lighting and some stage magic, takes the audience inside a stunningly realistic swim club. A swimming lane and starting block are surrounded by pure, spotless tile. Water patterns dance.
Surreally, though, a pool exit ladder hangs in the middle of a wall. This establishes a somewhat fanciful tone, which helps counterbalance the logic problems. Don’t take everything literally, it seems to say, which is good advice. But do take it seriously.
If the swimmer, named Ray, wins, so do those around him. His lawyer brother (played by Coronado Romero) is busy lining up a big endorsement deal and anticipates segueing into a sports agent career. He wears arrogance, ambition and greed as badges of achievement.
Ray’s coach (Jason E. Kelley), on the other hand, preaches “hard work and discipline, sacrifice,” but his ulterior motives begin to show too.
The world of swimming — a stand-in here for society at large — is populated by the sort of sea serpent tattooed onto Ray’s back. His sports therapist/ex-girlfriend (Kimberly Alexander) gets an opportunity to flip the system back on itself, but even then, a sacrifice of ethics is expected.
Every other moment a new quandary yawns open, but, frustratingly, there’s a void at the center of Banno’s approach to the play.
Ray is described by his brother as “a swimming machine, a body that’s built for one purpose,” which is sadly true. He’s not very bright. But as rendered by Adam Peltier he’s always dazed and blank, speaking so slowly that you sense his difficulty in formulating the simplest thought.
This makes us discount Ray, which we shouldn’t because he begins to realize something fundamental: He’s in danger of becoming everyone else’s profit engine rather than intrinsically worthy. Even through his thick skull, the words “I own you” penetrate.
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Where: The Road on Magnolia, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends July 1
Info: (818) 761-8838, www.roadtheatre.org
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes