Speech and Debate
Debbie and I had a great time on Saturday night with three of the out-est of outcasts from Oregon's North Salem High School, the setting for Stephen Karam's funny, engaging, dead-on portrait of those treacherous late-teenage years, Speech and Debate.
The three protagonists here are all social losers in their own way. Jason Fuchs and Gideon Glick deliver excellent, note-perfect performances as, respectively, Howie, the queeny, out-since-he-was-10 transfer student whose chat-room trolling for sex gets the plot (such as it is) rolling; and Solomon, a deeply awkward kid in tucked-in polo shirt and pleated khakis who channels his anxiety and nervous energy into being "mature" and reporting on controversial issues for the school newspaper.
But the brightest star is Sarah Steele as Diwata, a self-described "odd and frumpy" senior whose frustration over never getting cast in the school musical leads her to form a Speech and Debate team as a vehicle for her own creations, one of which features her playing her idol Mary Warren (of The Crucible) traveling through time to chat it up with a teenage Abe Lincoln. This bit is hilarious—Steele plays it completely straight—as are most of Diwata's utterly delusional ideas. Karam gives Diawata most of the best lines, and Steele knows what to do with them.
Anyway, the narrative is essentially about how Diwata convinces (blackmails, really) Howie and Solomon to join her Speech and Debate club, and the subsequent bonding that occurs as all three slowly reveal their (unsurprising) deepest secrets. But, of course, the enormous appeal of this show isn't in its mechanics; its in the terrific performances and Karam's knowing portrait of the ways in which teenagers—lacking adults they can trust or even respect—try to deal with their fears, loneliness, shame and insecurities through both righteous indignation and feigned indifference. And, again, watch for Sarah Steele in the hopefully near future.
Speech and Debate has been held over for second time, and will run through December 30. The Roundabout Underground, a new initiative dedicated to putting on the works of young playwrights, is being hosted by the Black Box Theater on 46th Street just west of Sixth Avenue, an industrial-looking little space with very comfortable chairs. Tickets are $20.