Speech & Debate

by John Stoltenberg

“Why can’t we talk about anything real in school?” The question is posed by Solomon, a nerdy high school student and wannabe journalist, whose teacher has forbidden him to report on the topic he wants to write about. It’s a classic standoff between adult authority and youthful search for authenticity that echoes through Stephen Karam’s dark comedy Speech & Debate. In it, three lonely misfit high school students who want to connect take it upon themselves to get real. Over the course of the lively, sharply observed, and very funny production I saw last night at The George Washington University, that connection happens so delightfully we  are caught up in it too.

Karam’s 2007 script has its ear tuned to teenage vernacular with captivating acumen. He doesn’t just get the slanguage; he gets the odd thought disruptions and peculiar syntactical synapses that characterize young brains still beginning to understand the beings they are in the world.  As smartly directed by GW theater professor Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang, the three students playing high schoolers capture Karam’s textured teen speak with an acting knack and exacting insight.

The play gets off to a hilarious start. Howie, who we learn is gay and comfortably out, is having an online chat with an older man who wants to hook up. We see their tentative text entries, which turn comically creepy,  displayed like a conversation in real time on an upstage screen. Meanwhile we hear Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” booming on the sound system! I can often tell within the first few minutes whether what I’m about to see is going to be any good, and last night’s show had me at hello.

Turns out that older man teaches in this very Salem, Oregon, high school, and Solomon is determined to expose him. For his investigative reporting, Solomon enlists Howie, whose online chat he has uncovered, as well as Diwata, a wannabe singer. Turns out Diwata has been turned down for a part in the high school musical by the man on the make with her classmate Howie—and she knows more about this “child molester” than Solomon himself wants to know.

It is a provocative setup and propitious plot engine that opens up wonderfully entertaining vignettes among the three students. They become by turns both a speech-and-debate club and the school’s gay-straight alliance, revealing themselves as fascinating characters in quest of authentic lives on their own and with one another. (Some of the play’s motifs—sexual secrets, lies, and predation—also happen to resonate eerily with today’s headlines, which could not have been foreseen when this nervy play was gutsily programmed.)

Will Lowe brings to the role of Solomon a lanky awkwardness that both charms and disarms. Jordan Feiner as Howie, who says he came out when he was ten, plays against stereotype in a way that terrifically serves the script’s cool normalizing of being gay. And Jennifer Rose playing older as the Teacher (later as a Reporter for a local news outlet) does a good job lobbing Karam’s sharp-edged grownup lines.

Performing the role of Diwata, Anna Young stands out as a formidable comedienne with  amazing dancing chops. In Diwati’s first scene of the play, she is alone in her room singing karaoke faultily, dancing mimicingly, and posting to her blog self-consciously—and Young nails it so hilariously, the scene could well stand alone as standup.

The production values are excellent, as they have been in every show I’ve seen at GW. Scenic Designer Gregg Jones builds three hexagonal platforms, furnished and dressed to represent each student’s room with apt specificity, and lays checkerboard tiles on a hexagonal floor area for classroom and other scenes.  Costume Designer Emily Yula’s clothes are a kick, notably the kooky and colorful wardrobe Diwata wears. Lighting Designer Jamie Gresens lends an institutional yet intimate feel to the proceedings. And along with the lighting, Sound Designer Samantha Gonzalez’s enjoyable pop-music tracks help cover the longish scene changes.

Finally a shout-out to Dramaturg Kathryn Chevalier for a very astute and well-written program note:

The story of Speech & Debate feels both familiar and fascinating, like something an audience has both heard before and is just discovering. Karam’s dark poignancy and vulnerable characters allow Speech & Debate to transcend a moment in time. The story of these three lives converging feels as if it is about more than high school, more than the 2000’s, and more than Salem, Oregon; it is about finding a way through the madness of growing up and clinging to those trying to do the same.

I don’t understand why more nonstudent theatergoers have not discovered the rewards to be had in the high-quality work being done by university theaters around town. Case in point: Speech & Debate, presented by The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance. It’s a very short run but it’s well worth catching up with.

Running Time: Two hours and five minutes, including one intermission.

Speech & Debate plays through this Sunday, October 16, 2016, presented by The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC.  For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.