Tuesday, October 30, 2007

PLAY: "Speech & Debate"

Photo/Joan Marcus

I went to high school at roughly the same time as young playwright Stephen Karam (26), and things weren't quite as silly as they're presented in his excellent new play, Speech & Debate. But times have changed, and Karam's done his research: he's taken two of the oldest stereotypes in the book, the untalented drama "major" and the overzealous nerd, paired them with an openly gay student, and modeled the scenes after various exercises from Speech and Debate. For instance, Extemporaneous Thought, follows Diwata's stream-of-consciousness rants (and Casio-composed songs) as she vents the only way she can: to her website, Monoblog. Or Storytelling, in which nebbish Solomon tries to interview "queenie" Howie over the phone, looking for the drama behind a drama teacher's online solicitations for sex. Though the play continues through Cross Examination, Declamation, and Student Congress (to name a few), it never strains the idea, and each scene cleverly ties these disparate students into an unlikely friendship, the kind that, given each one's secret, they all really need.

Speech & Debate is light and open-minded, but this doesn't stop it from being critical and dramatic where necessary. That Mr. Karam is able to jump from a teleconferenced chorus of song into a trumpeted chatroom conversation, and from there into a debate on freedom of speech (within a school) or the right to personal secrecy, speaks more clearly than I can toward his strength as a playwright. He's helped by the intimacy of the classroom set (the audience is proximal enough to be students) and by the masterful direction of Jason Moore (Avenue Q) who knows a thing or two about indulging quirks while still being truthful, if not insidiously so.

The acting is probably the weakest part of the show, and that's more a testament to the rest of the production than it is a critique of actors Sarah Steele, Jason Fuchs, Gideon Glick, and Susan Blackwell. They're all good, and they play well off one another, but they're channeling such exaggerated tics that they sometimes come across as self-aware and glib, particularly with Mr. Fuchs, who pulls faces more than some of the actors in 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It still works, but it'd be nice to see more than a brief glimpse of the real Ms. Steele, who is currently hiding behind what I'll call her character's Eyebrows of Indignation.

Some nitpicking seems de rigueur for a show that boldly traverses comedy and drama so well, but I wouldn't want to risk discouraging anyone from seeing this delightful show. This is good, topical theater, done professionally, and ticketed cheaply ($20), so get going!

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