Speech & Debate is about silence and lies, and about the sort of secrets that adults keep from teenagers and teenagers keep from each other. Another way to say this is that it is about sex – adult sex, practiced upon teenagers in a high school wilderness where they are taught that they are still children. In the solid production this well-received Off-Broadway play achieves at the hands of Rep Stage, its two young men and young woman seem less like high school students and more like rookie soldiers receiving fire on a battlefield. Although it has been marketed as a comedy, it is as serious as war itself.
Howie (Parker Drown) is an eighteen-year-old who is cruising a gay chat room, looking to hook up. He meets someone he didn’t expect to meet. Diwata (Florrie Bagel) is a talentless high school theater geek, improvising a song for a podcast on her blog about her hated drama teacher, who never casts her. Solomon (Sam Ludwig), a nerdy grind, is a high school reporter seeking desperately to break a big story. Is it not inevitable that, in the hormone-drenched halls of their school, these young people and their ambitions would meet?
Of course it is. Howie, listening to Diwata’s Big Blog o’ Rage, responds in the comments section that the drama teacher has bigger issues than she knows, and invites her to contact him for more information. Solomon, who combs the Internet in hopes of finding a story nestled in someone’s worldwide secret diary, discovers Howie’s remarks and contacts him before Diwata does. Haltingly, stumblingly, the three of them meet, and slowly reveal to each other the sexual secrets and humiliations that are bewildering them.
It does not help that they go to a school, and live in a community, which constantly infantilizes them. The kids, many of whom are sexually active, are compelled to go to a “stranger danger” assembly in which they are warned not to let anyone touch them in their “bathing suit areas”. The school musical is Once Upon a Mattress, but the production is bowdlerized so that the kids won’t discover that Lady Larken is unmarried and pregnant. Solomon thrashes about for a story idea because the school paper’s faculty guide (Karen Novak, good, as always, in this) refuses to allow it to publish his piece on abortion. Every kid in the high school is rushing pell-mell, ready or not, into his or her own sexuality, and there is no adult in their environment willing to acknowledge it.
So they join “Speech and Debate” – a statewide contest in which high school students express ideas through formal devices of rhetoric: original oratory, cross-examination, textual interpretation and the like. The Speech and Debate clause of the Constitution (Article I, § 6) immunizes members of Congress from criminal prosecution or civil suit based on what they say on the floor, and perhaps Howie, Diwata and Solomon seek some sort of immunity for the hard truths they are trying to tell. That their mode of expression ultimately obscures more than it reveals is irrelevant. They have told their truths to each other, and have thus found comfort.
It is hard for adult actors to recreate the sweaty confusion of the teenage years, but Drown, Bagel and Ludwig make it look easy. The portraits they draw are complex enough so that we can infer their parents from them, though they never appear on-stage: Solomon’s overbearing; Diwata’s angry and uncomprehending; Howie’s indifferent and, perhaps, frightened. And, just like it takes a truly graceful talent like that of Charlie Chaplin or Dick Van Dyke to show clumsiness on-stage, only truly fine song-and-dance talents like Bagel, Ludwig and Helen Hayes laureate Drown could properly show the fumbling theatrical efforts of the Speech and Debate team. In particular Bagel, an old-school, Ethel-Merman-style belter, is perfect as the off-key, weak-voiced Diwata.
Although all three are excellent, Ludwig has the most difficult part, as a man of one sort in the process of becoming one of a different sort. He nails it, and it is a happy thing to know that this fine singer and dancer has become a fine actor as well.
Though anyone can see Speech & Debate to advantage, this is a play which of primary benefit to grown-ups. Teenagers mostly know this story from life in one form or another already, but we can learn something from it. Playwright Stephen Karam traffics, as all good playwrights do, in ambiguity. His teenagers are not plaster saints. One of the first things Howie messages to the much-older sexual prospector he finds on the Internet is “R U Generou$?” Diwata takes as her fictional role model The Crucible’s Mary Warren, who is notable for being silent when she could have undone the Salem Witch Trials because she was afraid that she would herself be called a witch if she spoke up. And Solomon, abrasive and charmless, uses blackmail as his primary device to dig up stories. On the other hand, the only thing we know for sure about the drama teacher is that he sought sex with Howie, a legal adult. It seems a slender thing to serve as a basis for a series of actions which will surely result in the loss of his job, and ostracization from this conservative community. And yet…the skin crawls the more we hear about this man.
Some plays carry warnings about nudity or adult content; Speech & Debate should carry this warning: the contents of this play may make you uncomfortable. This story is honest and not sensational, but it is uncompromising, and makes no accommodation to our desire to avoid hard truths. I saw some people slip out as the play’s themes began to reveal themselves, so do yourself a favor – if you’re not prepared to hear this story out, don’t bother to come.
But if you do come, and stay, you will also be doing yourself a favor. At the end, alone in the empty universe, Solomon will ask a question. It will be the same question you’ve asked, many times. And whether your future, like his, spreads out before you like a limitless plain or occupies a more restricted space, and regardless of your sexuality, you will feel closer to the answer than you did before.
Speech & Debate
By Stephen Karam
Directed by Eve Muson
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission
- Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
- Celia Wren . Washington Post
- John Harding . ColumbiaFlyer
- Brent Englar . BroadwayWorld