Three teenage misfits are the vulnerable and funny heart of Interplayers’ production of Stephan Karam’s “Speech & Debate.”
The play, directed by Marilyn Langbehn, offers a glimpse into the world of these adolescents who are simply trying to make friends and figure out who they are. The program warns of “adult situations,” but while the play touches on sexuality and abortion, nothing is gratuitous, and older teens and college students especially would identify with these characters.
The play opens with a young man typing on his laptop. The dialogue of his online chat room conversation is projected on a screen, with each line appearing perfectly timed to Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The dialogue becomes insidious when it turns sexual and we realize the boy is chatting with an older man, launching the play’s dark premise.
Molly Ovens is captivating as the drama queen, Diwata, who can’t get cast in a decent role in the school play. So, she endeavors to start a speech and debate club where she can show off her talents. Ovens displays her comic skill in her character’s first appearance where she records a drunken Internet podcast, sings and rails against her drama teacher. Her mannerisms are very funny throughout the play, and every word is punctuated with humorous gestures or facial expressions, as only a drama queen can.
Nicholas Witham portrays Solomon, an uptight reporter for the school newspaper who is chasing a story about the town’s mayor and the school’s drama teacher, both of whom are rumored to prey on young men. He comes unraveled as the play progresses.
Howie, played by Brian Demar Jones, is openly gay and seems to be the only one comfortable in his own skin. Jones, who played the character in a production elsewhere, appears genuine and natural.
Nancy Gasper rounds out the cast, playing a teacher and journalist, the only adult characters seen.
The three students – friends by necessity – are so different in personality that their clashes make for humorous interactions. Their group interpretive dance scene, which includes a comical semi-striptease, is brilliantly choreographed and hilarious.
Karam’s script is broken down into scenes that are titled with a different debate style, such as “Lincoln/Douglas” and “Cross-ex.” As a whole, the story feels uneven. Some scenes are more focused than others, and the energy dips in the middle of the play. And while the students are participating in a debate club, we never actually see them do a formal debate. The dialogue, which wanders off at times, always returns to the main story, often with big laughs.
The playwright does, however, reveal the play’s truths and mysteries deliberately with a bit of surprise, and Langbehn crafts each of those moments well.
“Speech & Debate” boils down to its last line, “Anybody out there?” That’s really what these teens are looking for: someone with whom to connect.