Red Speedo Swimmingly Brings Immersive Theater Back To Houston

Olivia Swasey and Alejandro Meza in Red Speedo
Olivia Swasey and Alejandro Meza in Red Speedo Photo by Christian Brown
“OK, Ms. Goldman, I’m going to need you to sign this waiver before you go into the show”. So said the lovely young woman who greeted me as I arrived to see Red Speedo, presented by On The Verge Theatre.

Not an entirely unusual request for a critic. Once in a blue moon, we’re asked to sign forms promising not to give away this or that crucial plot point or some other kind of experience-killing detail.

However, this time the waiver wasn’t just for me, it was meant for everyone in attendance. Nothing to do with poisoning the pool of the show, this time it was about not falling into the pool. A full-length honest-to-goodness deep and impressive lap pool, that is, and our promise that we wouldn't sue if we happened to fall in.

Hallelujah Houston, immersive theater is back! Thanks to Lucas Hnath’s short but punchy play about ambition, values and what it means to win, we find ourselves inhaling wafts of chlorine and watching filter-propelled ripples as we sit on folding chairs encircling the impressive indoor pool that comprises the show’s setting.

We are in an elite practice swimming club, the kind that turns out Olympic contenders.

After doing a few impressive laps and some handstands for fun, Ray (Alejandro Meza) buoyantly hoists himself up on the ledge of the pool as though gravity doesn’t apply to him.

There’s an argument going on about him, one he pays not much mind to, occupied instead with goofily clearing his ears of water. An indication that his grasp on matters outside the pool may be limited.

His aggressive, fast-talking lawyer/manager brother Peter (Dylan Pierce) and his Coach (Brian Broome) are going at it. Performance-enhancing drugs have been found on the premises and Coach wants to report the violation to the governing body. He thinks the drugs belong to one of his lesser swimmers and feels a moral obligation to abide by the rules.

Conversely, Peter wants the drugs flushed. Reporting them could taint the entire team and his phenom brother’s very real chances of qualifying for the Olympics the following day. Ray is so close, why spoil it now? Especially when Peter is about to land a swimsuit sponsorship with Speedo for his brother. A real coup for a swimmer this early in his career.

What does Ray think? Does Ray think at all? On the scale of Michael Phelps to Ryan Lochte, Ray is about two steps behind Lochte in the brains department. Sweet as all get-up, speaking in a monosyllabic cheerful burst of yeah, good and OK, Ray seems like a puppet in all this competition nonsense.

Truth is however, they are his drugs. Have been all along in his meteoric rise to the top. And if he’s going to qualify for the Olympics, secure his Speedo deal, ensure his coach gets his due and pave a path of financial windfall for his brother, he needs the enhancement. Ray knows this better than anyone.
click to enlarge
Dylan Pierce and Alejandro Meza in Red Speedo
Photo by Christian Brown
After all, he and his brother grew up with nothing. Poor in America — a kind of blight they survived. Peter went to law school and Ray dropped out of school to swim. The only thing he was ever good at. The one thing that would ever bring him success.

Like all his plays, Hnath presents us with a quandary. In The Christians (Alley, 2016) we struggled with faith’s incongruency with modern America. A Doll’s House Part 2 (4th Wall 2021) had us wrestling with the high cost of female emancipation. The Thin Place (4th Wall 2022) pitted the living with what might lie beyond.

In Red Speedo, Hnath asks more humble and straightforward questions. Is morality only secure if you have nothing at stake? Is betrayal acceptable if you need to put yourself first to survive? When is winning actually losing?

Ray tests all these boundaries with his ex-girlfriend, Lydia (Olivia Swasey). She was his original dealer before her career as a sports therapist was ended in scandal thanks to Peter’s career climbing. Will she once again supply Ray with his drugs and what does she need in return to comply?

Never mind that Roy may actually love her beyond the use she serves, even if he doesn’t know how to correctly parse the two emotions.

“We all do things that are sorta good and sorta bad,” Ray tells Lydia, succinctly encapsulating the play’s simple premise.

It’s a messy web Hnath weaves as every character transactionally needs and wants something from the other. Greed, ambition, redemption, glory, escape and love. It’s all there, and just like the pool water the characters slip in and out of (perhaps splashing our toes gently if you’re sitting near the front of the action), the morals of this play are wet and slippery, with strong undercurrents of selfish pull.

When it comes to this thoroughly engaging production, it’s hoped you’ll forgive the rather banal praise first doled out, but understand the triumph of production it represents.

We’re in an echoey, cavern of space, this indoor swimming facility. We hear sirens outside, cars, pool-jets, all sorts of potential distractions. But not once is anyone straining to hear this talented cast.

Remember the days before actors wore mics to be heard in large/complicated spaces? When they could project? It’s like director Ron Jones took this crew back to a simpler technical time and reminded them how to use their voice as an instrument.

And these are voices we want to hear.

Hnath has a particular rhythm for this show and it’s all about rapid-fire, trialing sentences and interrupted thoughts. It’s not unusual to hear the dialogue between characters that goes something like this:

“You know…you’re…

Tough thing to pull off on stage, this halting rolling overlap, but Jones has his cast on a tight leash here firing off verbal micro bullets while giving them all enough room to flex their muscles.

The heightened scenes between Roy and Peter, two brothers at crossroads especially shine. Even when things get physical. Pierce’s Peter exudes a wonderful tautness while Meza’s Roy dances affably until he’s finally pushed too far.

Likewise, Broome as Coach and Swasey and Lydia step into Hnath’s world with utter confidence.

Will we long remember the questions raised as we step out of the humid pool stage into the night, the way we did with other Hnath plays? Perhaps not. Our hair will definitely be frizzy, which you can take home with you.

But even with simpler Hnath, there’s a post-show conversation to be had about our own personal values and boundaries. Even if it’s just a conversation with ourselves.

The discussion about On the Verge Theatre, a relatively new company in Houston, is simple. Keep it up, we say. With Red Speedo we have a trifecta evening. A high caliber, unique show, cast with known and new talent all coming together in dare we say, a swimmingly handsome production.

We might not have fallen in the pool with this show, but we certainly have fallen for this production. So dive on in kids....the water is splendid.

Red Speedo runs through  February26 at Gigglin' Marlin Dive & Swim, 4502 Almeda. For more information, visit $30-$35.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman