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Leave It to the Misfits to Find the Truth

Original Article

October 30, 2007
THEATER REVIEW | 'SPEECH & DEBATE'

By CARYN JAMES


The title “Speech & Debate” is so dull, and the synopsis sounds so deadly — three misfit high school students form a debate club — that they must be ploys to lower expectations. That hideous title doesn’t prepare you for the hilarious musical the students perform: An accused witch from “The Crucible” time-travels to meet a teenage, gay Abe Lincoln and sing at him, “Boy, whatcha doin’?” A plot description doesn’t hint at how funny and cliché-free this brilliantly performed little show is.

Stephen Karam’s dark comedy seems to be about a frumpy girl, a nerdy guy and an openly gay guy who band together to disclose the truth about a teacher who preys on his male students. But that topical plot is almost window dressing. The play’s real accomplishment is its picture of the borderland between late adolescence and adulthood, where grown-up ideas and ambition coexist with childish will and bravado.

On a spare set designed to look like a classroom, we first see Howie at his computer, whose words are projected on a screen behind him. He is being picked up by an older man, who turns out to be the school’s drama teacher, a fact soon uncovered by Solomon, the nerdy kid who is also a gung-ho reporter for the school paper. Solomon has already become obsessed with the town’s hypocritical mayor, a conservative Republican accused of having had sex with teenage boys.

Diwata, who also knows the teacher’s secret, is an apparently talentless singer and actress who puts “Wicked” on a par with Arthur Miller and whose only friend is the camera that records her doing her podcast.

All three have sexual secrets that are not hard to guess. But Mr. Karam’s observations are shrewd. The town is called Salem, which the play uses to joke about the smug yet goofy way the students grasp the witch-hunting connections. And the performances are so incisive that they erase any hint that the characters might come laden with thematic significance. Gideon Glick’s performance as Howie at first seems to be a drawling stereotype, but we quickly realize that that’s how the character sees himself. He recalls a story he created as a child (complete with cartoonish drawings projected on a screen), a retelling of the Bible in which an autobiographical boy he calls “all gay and queeny” meets Cain and Abel, and discovers a new reason for the fratricide.

Solomon is the kind of ultra-serious cub reporter who might be a hit with would-be employers but has no idea that his Lacoste shirt, white running shoes and intense careerism make him a hopeless loser socially. Jason Fuchs’s sharp performance captures the geekiness and the lack of self-awareness.

The star of this production, though, is Sarah Steele as Diwata, the funniest, wailing-est singer this side of the “American Idol” auditions. Her own idol is Mary Warren, the accused witch from “The Crucible,” which Diwata has rewritten as a musical with defiant lines like, “Try to hang me, see how strong my neck is.”

Ms. Steele captures Diwata’s loneliness without pity or condescension, allowing us to laugh at her absurdities (“You read my blog,” she yells. “That’s my private journal!”) without laughing at her very real problems. As these three go about the serious matter of unmasking the teacher and confronting their own futures, their mature steps toward honesty frequently descend to the level of: “You use cover-up to hide your acne and think people can’t tell!”

Everything about “Speech & Debate” is deliberately, and winningly, modest. It is the first offering from the Roundabout Underground, a program in which the Roundabout Theater gives professional productions to playwrights early in their careers (Mr. Karam is 27). And there is not an amateurish moment in sight.

The sharpness of this production owes a lot to its director, Jason Moore of “Avenue Q.” The three stars are barely in their 20s, but Mr. Fuchs has been acting since childhood; Mr. Glick was in “Spring Awakening,” on and Off Broadway; and Ms. Steele played Adam Sandler’s awkward adolescent daughter in the movie “Spanglish.”

The Underground’s home is a tiny new basement space called the Black Box Theater, a name that really fits. The cinderblock walls allow it to be transformed into a classroom all too easily. The triumph of this production is that we never feel we’re being educated, just immensely entertained. Its first time out, the Roundabout Underground has done exactly what it was created to do.

SPEECH & DEBATE

By Stephen Karam; directed by Jason Moore; sets by Anna Louizos; costumes by Heather Dunbar; lighting by Justin Townsend; sound and projection design by Brett Jarvis; choreography by Boo Killebrew; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons; production manager, Michael Wade; general manager, Rebecca Habel; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director. At the Roundabout Underground Black Box Theater, at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street, Manhattan; (212) 719-1300. Through Dec. 16. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

WITH: Susan Blackwell (Teacher/Reporter), Jason Fuchs (Solomon), Gideon Glick (Howie) and Sarah Steele (Diwata).