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Speech & Debate

Stephen Karam's play about a trio of high school misfits manages to capture the awkwardness associated with a budding maturity. logo
Jason Fuchs, Sarah Steele, and Gideon Glick
in Speech & Debate
(© Joan Marcus)
The recent spat of politician sex scandals -- and particularly, former Spokane mayor James E. West's online solicitation of sex with teenage boys -- are the clear inspiration for Stephen Karam's new play, Speech & Debate, which is inaugurating the Roundabout's new Black Box Theatre. While the playwright's tale about a trio of misfits at a Salem, Ogegon, high school is, at times, implausible, it also captures the awkwardness associated with a budding maturity.

Diwata (Sarah Steele) is an aspiring actress who can never seem to land a decent part in any of the high school productions. She blames this fact on her drama teacher, Mr. Healy, whom she calls "gay-guy-with-a-receding-hairline" on her blog. Howie (Gideon Glick), an openly gay teen new to Salem, sees one of her podcasts, and posts a message, promising that he has his own dirt about Healy and asking her to call him. Instead, he's contacted by Solomon (Jason Fuchs), a nerdy, intense young man who wants to be a journalist and is trying to do a story on Republican gay sex scandals for the school paper -- much to the dismay and objection of his teacher (Susan Blackwell). Eventually, the three students unite to form their school's first Speech & Debate club, although the reasons given for the two boys' active participation (especially Howie's) stretch credulity.

What does come through is that each feels lonely and isolated, and this new activity may allow them an outlet to work out some of their personal problems. The most resonant aspect of the script is this desire to talk about the issues closest to them in a manner that doesn't always make it seem like it's about them. It's as if they both hope for and desperately fear that their secrets will be exposed. This is most clearly seen with Solomon, who has his own complicated reasons for pursuing the story about Mr. Healy.

There are a few plot holes, the largest of which is that the three teens are given absolutely no faculty guidance or supervision for their Speech & Debate club. Granted, there's a line early in the script saying that a faculty advisor will be assigned the following year, and what the three students are doing is working up a presentation for the school board that demonstrates interest and will supposedly secure funding. However, it's extremely unlikely that they'd ever be asked to do this on their own, especially since the initial idea is said to have originated with the school principal.

Steele captures just the right blend of being enthusiastic and annoying. Her Diwata does show that she has talent that may have been overlooked, even if it's not as honed as she'd like to think, and the way she expresses it may be off-putting to some. Glick's Howie shows an outward confidence and boldness, but is still insecure about certain aspects of his sexual activities. Of the three central characters, his is the least fleshed out by the playwright, but the actor manages to provide a clear and engaging characterization that makes this less obvious.

Fuchs has several good moments, but tends to keep hitting the same note over and over without much variation, and his stooped posture comes off as a little too caricaturish. Still, he manages to make Solomon's journey within the play affecting, if not always completely believable. Blackwell is excellent as Solomon's teacher, but is less memorable as a reporter who comes to interview the kids at one of their rehearsals.

Karam's writing is alternately humorous and earnest, hitting on topics such as internalized homophobia, abortion, and more. His dialogue flows smoothly, especially with the aid of director Jason Moore's crisp pacing, which brings out the whimsical aspects of the script without sacrificing its more serious content.

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