Arts & Culture

Thwarting Expectations at Every Turn

By Heidi Broadhead January 29, 2010

The first thing that strikes you about the Seattle Repertory Theatre's current production of Speech and Debate is the room: Flourescent lights, white concrete walls, red stackable chairs, metal trash can. Yep. This is high school.

Stephen Karam wrote Speech and Debate when he was 26, and it was first performed at New York's Roundabout Theater in 2007. Its three high school misfits end up—by sex-related secrets, youthful ambition, and a little bit of blackmailing—as the only members of North Salem* High's new Speech and Debate Club.

Their paths cross accidentally one night when Solomon, the perpetually Izod-shirted, white-sneakered cub reporter, and Howie, the openly gay former Eagle Scout who's just moved to "puritan liberal" Salem from Portland, see a potentially scandal-circulating blog post by Diwata, who spends Friday night singing in her jammies: "I'm sitting at my Casio keyboard, so drunk and so damn bored."

In fact it's Diwata (endearing played by Erin Stewart) who wants to start the Speech and Debate Club so she can show off her acting chops after being "miscast" as "Ensemble member #1" in the Princess and the Pea.

It becomes apparent pretty quickly that there's not going to be much speech or debate. The scenes are modeled after actual S&D categories, but the "dramatic interpretation" and "group interpretation" (i.e., musical theater) scenes overshadow the debate scenes (like the overlong "cross-examination debate"), which can come across as a bit over-dramatic for this fast-paced comedy.

Overall, though, the production moves along well. Speech and Debate constantly verges on being an "issue play," yet thwarts that expectation at every turn, and the performers (and director Andrea Allen) walk this line pretty skillfully.

The New York Times called the original "cliche-free." I think the play's real accomplishment is that it has so many cliched teen issues (boys in chat rooms with older guys, abortion/teen pregnancy, religious hypocrisy about sexuality, misfits bonding), but the dialogue and self-serving dorkiness of the teens subvert those cliches—or at least are so entertaining (think "naked forest dance") that you don't care.

And the tech is so fun—projected children's doodles, PA announcements, and scene titles written on an overhead projector as you watch—that it's really hard not to love this show and its misguided, hopeful characters.

Karam has described his high school self as "clueless and confident." And, essentially, that's what his play celebrates. You probably won't gain any new insight into teenagers from watching Speech and Debate. But if you are looking for a fun show with likable characters, witty dialogue that doesn't try too hard, and song-and-dance numbers that make you want to join in, I highly recommend it.

Speech and Debate plays Wednesdays to Sundays, through February 19 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

*Karam set the play in Salem, Oregon, primarily to serve references to "the other Salem" and The Crucible. The general middle-American-ness of it might have played better in New York. Watching it in the Pacific Northwest, you become more acutely aware of its general all-Americanness, and long for something with even a little bit of regional resonance. It did make me wonder if all productions about high school are forever relegated to some sort of John Hughes-inspired Midwestern generality.
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