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Speech & Debate

Stephen Karam's 2007 play is now a movie.

Liam James, Sarah Steele, and Austin P. McKenzie star in the film adaptation of Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate, directed by Dan Harris.
(© Haley Rynn Ringo)

You have to watch what you say in Salem. Try to ignore the hypocrisy of the powers that be as they enforce a rigorous moral orthodoxy to which they will never comply. If you call them out, there will be serious consequences. No, this isn't Arthur Miller's The Crucible, but Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate; and we're in Salem, Oregon, not Massachusetts. The 2007 play (which inaugurated Roundabout Theatre Company's Underground space) is now a motion picture thanks to Sycamore Pictures. Karam's dark comedy of teenage audacity feels a lot more confident on-screen. Consequently, it is also a lot funnier.

It tells the story of three precocious high schoolers: Diwata (Sarah Steele, reprising the role she originated onstage) is a drama nerd whose outspoken style and baroque auditions relegate her to the chorus. Solomon (Liam James) is a reporter with the school newspaper, frustrated that he is never allowed to report on anything controversial that people would actually want to read. Howie (Austin P. McKenzie) recently moved to Salem from Portland and is convinced that he is the only gay kid at school. When his proposal to start a gay-straight alliance is rejected by the school board, he assumes he will be stuck secretly hooking up with Diwata's nemesis, drama teacher Mr. Healy (Skylar Astin), for the rest of his year.

But when a sympathetic teacher (Sarah Baker) e-mails Solomon information about speech and debate competitions, he sees the potential to finally have his say. He convinces Diwata to jump on board for the dramatic interpretation event. In turn, she convinces Howie that competition trips would be a great excuse for him to get back to the gay scene in Portland. These three misfits form the school speech and debate team with the help of lunch lady Oksana (Christina Franco), who signs on as faculty advisor.

While Karam's stage play is written for four actors (the three teens and one adult teacher who doubles as a news reporter), he has expanded the dramatis personae in his screenplay, which is one of the benefits of film. We now get to meet the parents, teacher, and other adults who make up the stifling world of suburban Salem, making it all seem a lot more real.

Janeane Garofalo plays Diwata's overworked mom, Marie: Her exchanges with Steele feel authentic, the exasperated love of a mother and daughter thankfully nearing the end of their time living together. Wendi McLendon-Covey brings a kindly presence to the underwritten role of Howie's mom, Joan. Kal Pen is hilarious as Solomon's dad, James, a man whose aggressively bland personality masks a terror that he has no idea what he is doing. Karam puts them all on the school board, meaning that the machine our protagonists rage against is composed primarily of their own parents. Alongside the uptight Principal Belligham (a jaw-clenching Roger Bart), this ensemble of adults deftly creates the soft oppression of American high school, an excellent primer for the soft oppression of American adulthood.

Roger Bart plays Principal Bellingham in Speech & Debate.
(© Haley Rynn Ringo)

Despite these additional moving pieces, the film feels tauter than the stage version. Director Dan Harris brings an inventive sense of humor, filling his shots with sight gags while maintaining a brisk pace (tight editing by Robert Hoffman). It is impossible not to laugh during the competition sequence, in which our three protagonists encounter a strange culture of confrontational dorks and speed debaters. A 1980s-style instructional video about debating (featuring memorable cameos by Lin-Manuel Miranda and original Howie, Gideon Glick) is a laugh riot.

Harris applies his efficient style to more serious effect as well, like how we can always hear Solomon's parents screaming at each other through the walls whenever he is in his room (crafty sound editing by John-Thomas Graves). Harris and Karam pack a lot into 94 minutes, leaving us with the slightly uncomfortable but dramatically satisfying experience of our laughter butting up against our residual adolescent resentment.

Liam James plays Solomon, and Sarah Steele plays Diwata in Speech & Debate.
(© Haley Rynn Ringo)

Karam (the Tony-winning author of The Humans) has made his script a lot sharper for film: He's cut out superfluous words and exchanges, while also clarifying the motivations of his characters. The gimmickry of modeling each scene after a category of speech and debate is gone, allowing content to dictate form in a way that feels more natural and precise. It all points to a dramatist who has become far more comfortable in his own voice over the past decade.

The three leading players benefit from Karam's revisions: 10 years later, Steele still steals the show as Diwata (her performances of Karam's original songs are highlights). She mixes her abrasiveness with just enough charm so that we never turn against her. As Solomon, James embodies the self-inflicted anxiety of a straitlaced kid addicted to stirring the pot. McKenzie's Howie wears a blasé facade that occasionally cracks apart, letting us see the lonely kid underneath.

Howie (Austin P. McKenzie) and Diwata (Sarah Steele) perform a musical about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Warren in Speech & Debate.
(© Haley Rynn Ringo)

Speech & Debate is an uproarious teen comedy for the secret smart set in school, the kids who know in their hearts that senior prom does not represent a life pinnacle. It is best enjoyed in your best friend's mom's finished basement with a giant bowl of popcorn, but it will be just as funny 15 years later in your own home, with a glass of wine added for good measure. Karam has a shrewd understanding of the misadventures and false epiphanies that are the hallmark of the threshold separating adolescence from adulthood. They may not make us any wiser, but they get us through to the next chapter.