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Speech & Debate

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jason Fuchs, Sarah Steele, and Gideon Glick.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Where have theatre companies gotten the idea that if sex is good, talking about sex must be better? Whether it's American Puritanism taking its last, gasping breath or a dissection of what's perceived as the closed-minded Red State mindset is a question for the philosophers and accountants —who already have their hands full with last season's hit musical Spring Awakening. But in case they want a break, they could take a one-night vacation to see Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate, a highly amusing and highly accomplished play about essentially the same subject.

Avoiding comparisons to Spring Awakening isn't easy —Speech & Debate concerns three high-schoolers facing questions without readily available answers, and features one of its original cast members, Gideon Glick, nearly reprising his role of the gay boy out. There are even songs and dances (superb ones, I might add) allowing its young characters to express their innermost fears and annoyances without the risk of reprisal from the grown-ups who, as always, just don't get it.

That's more or less where the similarities end. Speech & Debate is placed unapologetically in our country in the present, in which politicians (frequently on the Right side of the aisle) decry behavior in which they themselves engage. Sex and hypocrisy collide in Howie (Glick), Solomon (Jason Fuchs), and Diwata (Sarah Steele), three students at North Salem High (Oregon, not Massachusetts) contending with a conservative mayor who's had sex with three young boys, a possibly pedophilic drama teacher, and plenty of their own hormonal confusions.

But it's the focus on the world beyond the insular existence of these three angst-ridden adolescents, that gives Speech & Debate its power. Karam worked the opposite magic a year and a half ago in his remarkable play Columbinus at New York Theatre Workshop, in which he distilled the troubles of a generation into the too-potent brew that was Columbine High School in early 1999. Here, he proves even more successful at discovering what makes teenagers tick —and what the impact of grown-ups is on the children they sometimes want to keep children.

As the kids explore how to present their problems within the context of the new speech-and-debate club their school is forming, it becomes increasingly clear how their troubles mirror those of the greater society. Reasonable reasons arise for everything from staying (and exiting) the closet to journalist-cum-activist Solomon's crusade against the mayor and the possibly violated Howie, and even —in the play's most overtly delightful scenes —a conflation of Arthur Miller's classic play The Crucible with the life of 16-year-old Abraham Lincoln. Solomon, Howie, and Diwata have absorbed so much, how can anyone be shocked by what they regurgitate when the time comes?

That's the ultimate point of Speech & Debate, and that it's dealt with only obliquely is another strength of the play and of Jason Moore's direction. Whether at school or on the Internet (wittily represented by Brett Jarvis's projections), the central trio soulfully communicate the awkward pain of being thrust into adulthood without proper preparation. It helps that all three look and act the appropriate ages, with Solomon's open-mouthed cluelessness, Steele's smarmy aggression, and Glick's get-it-all-over-with grasp of irony all perfectly at home. Even fourth cast member Susan Blackwell adds a compelling layer of condescension to her two adult characters without dipping into buffoonery.

So, too, does Karam resist so many of the usual urges to dumb down his portrayals of high-schoolers that it's a shame to report that he increasingly gives into formula as his 100-minute play unfolds. Aside from a terrifying (and hilarious) glimpse into the possibility of Miller's Mary Warren time traveling to meet a young Abe Lincoln and a performance-art dance interpretation of George Michael's "Freedom," the last few scenes wrap up the play in a far more conventional manner than it's laid out. If this robs some of the later scenes of their potential depth, it does little to dampen the impact of the play as a whole.

Speech & Debate is the inaugural production of the new, aptly named Roundabout Underground initiative, with an official goal is to cultivate emerging playwrights and directors and an unofficial goal of cultivating younger and hipper audiences. There's also the more literal matter of the theater: Located several floors below the Roundabout's bigger Off-Broadway space, the Laura Pels Theatre, this new Black Box Theatre seats at most a few dozen and demands intimate contact between actors and audience that's just right for plays as immediate as this one.

At the performance I attended, the overall audience age certainly seemed to be two or three decades younger than the typical theatregoing average, in itself a noteworthy success for Roundabout. Whether these are really the people who need convincing about the dangers of blurring the lines between age, sex, and politics is another question, but that Speech & Debate treats them to a great, thoughtful evening out is practically its own reward.

Speech & Debate
Through December 16
Roundabout Theatre Company: The Black Box Theatre, at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Roundabout

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