This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
There is nothing more exciting for theatergoers than watching new, theatrical talent blossom on stage in front of your eyes. Earlier this year, I experienced this thrill during the run of Stephen Karam's then-brand new play: Speech & Debate—and I experienced it in quadruple fashion as all of the play's young actors were so alive, so perfectly cast that I couldn't wait to see each of them in their next performance. For some confounding reason, that premiere production (directed by Jason Moore of Avenue Q fame) at New York's Roundabout Underground never transferred to a larger stage or toured, which means that its quartet of fine performances will have to live on as theatrical legend.
Luckily, the Blank Theatre here in Hollywood is currently presenting the West Coast Premiere of Speech & Debate and seeing it again I experienced the same thrill. This time however, it came not from the performances—which were all strong, though not quite as nuanced or lived-in as the original cast—but from the play itself. Seeing Speech & Debate again, it's clear that part of my initial thrill should have been credited to Stephen Karam's script, which holds up extremely well on a second viewing.
Speech & Debate is about three decidedly unpopular students at an Oregon high-school. Each is suffering under the weight of some perceived injustice, one that they see as the cause of their unexalted teenage status.
For Solomon, he blames the teacher in change of the school paper who won't let him write about hot-button issues like abortion, for Diwata, it's not being cast in the School Musical, and for Howie, it's simply being an openly gay transfer student.
The play opens on a night where Howie goes on-line and enters a chat room where he's picked up by a man who he later realizes is a teacher at his new High School. In fast, funny fashion this event brings Soloman, Diwata and Howie together in the school's Speech & Debate club. None of them want to be there, but each of them needs the other to get what it is they do want. One of the many smart and savvy element of Karam's play is the way he suggests all early adolescent relationships are founded on the awkward truth that both parties have no other friends and that's better to team up than become enemies.
Speech & Debate has enough substance to invite plenty of topical analogies, but its strength as a dramatic work stems from the fact that it resists easy political interpretations. None of the characters stand for any real-world figure or movement…or at least any of the kids. Karam's one memorable adult character is a reporter for the Daily Oregonian who loves to promote herself on the local NPR station. She does a segment about the Speech & Debate club which is priceless for its self-importance and its complete obliviousness to what the students are actually going through. She feels like a satirical foil instead of a real person, but as played by Susan Blackwell in the original and Dale Dickey here at the Blank, the role is so funny one can't really complain.
My only real grumble about this production is that the actors playing the three young students look much older than real high schoolers. Despite this fact of nature (and Equity regulations) Aaron Himmelstein, Michael Welch, and Mae Whitman give vibrant performances. Whitman, in the over-the-top role of Diwata, sometimes goes too far; but for the most part, Daniel Henning's steady direction maintains a youthful feel and Karam's songs, podcasts, and on-line chats all possess an exuberant mix of gravity and idiocy that feels like an honest account of High School life in America today.
Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate runs at the Blank Theater through November 16.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.