Speech & Debate
Also see Fred's review of Children
Luke Hegel-Cantarella has designed the stage so that, at first, one looks upon a very, very large computer screen: the theatergoer's eye perceives a blue background surrounded by a white frame. When the show begins, Internet messages abound as Howie (Carl Holder) types them. Eventually, we discover the crux of the play: Diwata (Jee Young Han), annoyed that Mr. Healy, the drama teacher, will not give her a significant part in a school production, will form a speech and debate contingent with Howie and Solomon (Ben Diskant). She just happens to be writing a musical version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Playwright Karam manages to weave in some cogent material reflecting upon Salem, Massachusetts. After all, these adolescents are going to school in Salem, Oregon.
Currently thirty, Karam wrote the play when he was in his late twenties, just a decade removed from his own high school years. That he is in touch with time and place is obvious. His dialogue is crisp, and the laughter he creates is natural and fresh. Much of the focus is upon sexuality. Solomon, who favors radiant shirts with familiar alligators across the chest, sees himself as a serious journalist. Howie, unlike Solomon, admits he is gay. Diwata, really the star of the show, is warm, open and comfortable, physically, with her body type. Just as important, actress Jee Young Han, comfortable with this role, exudes confidence.
Some of the best moments occur when the kids sing. Diwata pretty much fills the stage, and her friends combine on a lovely number during one of the play's many scenes. In some ways, this is a prototypical high school in a conservative town. Howie calls those living in the village "liberal Puritans." Parents and some teachers haven't the slightest inclination to address problems. Not one educator will agree to become faculty advisor for the gay/straight alliance. The three students Karam features are bright but constricted. Thus, Speech & Debate really is not about speaking and debating but allowing creative teenaged people the opportunity to gain a bit of freedom and grow into themselves. Healy, never seen, is depicted as an unreasonable and unresponsive theater director. Diwata seeks to separate and distance herself from him, thus gaining self-respect. The fourth member of this cast, Eva Kaminsky, does a fine job playing both a weary teacher and a reporter from town.
The TheaterWorks presentation zips along consistently from start to finish. Karam provides the fuel, for his script opens with an attention getter: messages exchanged, in rapid succession, upon a screen. The admirable cast members, too, are high octane from the moment the play begins. Hegel-Cantarella's stage design is inviting as one sequence leads easily to the next and so forth. Jenny Mannis' costuming is most appropriate and contributes to the amusement as the kids strip down to undergarments late in the performance.
While the three students are youthful, the actors are not, in real life, teenagers. Yet, each makes a swift, believable connection with the character to be embodied. Speech & Debate brings us to familiar territory but there isn't anything repetitive about Karam's writing. He brings us invigorating theater, and this production actualizes the script's promise. At the conclusion of the performance I attended, most everyone else leapt up for a standing ovation. I remained seated as my socks weren't quite knocked off or even askew. Even seated, I must say this one sparkles with energy from the get-go.
Speech & Debate continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through July 26th. For ticket information, call the box office at (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.
- Fred Sokol