All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Shades of Howard Wolowitz!
Each of the teenagers depicted in Stephen Karam’s comedy, “Speech & Debate” is admonished by an off-stage parent, usually pleading with the adolescent to turn down the volume on some item that emits sound. In one case, that of Diwata, a creative type who releases her angst, anger, and vindictiveness in song, you’re on the parent’s side. Diwata’s music is terrible, so anything that can curtail a performance of it is appreciated.
Diwata, who is attempting to initiate a speech and debate club at her school, a group that would follow the rules of the National Speech & Debate Association and, in time, compete with other schools. Every time she issues a call for membership, she ends up sitting in the meeting place alone.
In spite of her failure to launch a school activity, Diwata has a following. She displays her self-indulgence on a podcast that is watched and taken somewhat seriously by others in her high school class, especially when she suggests the drama teacher, the one that did cast her in lead parts and rarely in ensembles, is gay and had an illicit encounter with a student.
This gets the attention of two people. One is Solomon, a budding reporter who is dogged about getting news and is willing to be rude and ruthless in his pursuit of it. Solomon is one of those single-minded kinds who thinks his diligent sense of purpose entitles him to be taken seriously. He doesn’t mind stooping to the worst of journalistic practices to get a story, especially one he considers a scandal that will make his name among student reporters and blow the lids off of dubious doings at his school and his town’s City Hall.
The town, by the way, is a small one called Salem, and Karam includes a lot of references to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” one of the plays in which Diwata was denied the ingénue lead, and associations with witch hunts.
Howie is a newcomer to Salem, a gay youth who is looking to find like company and doesn’t know how to begin. He wants to start a Gay-Straight Association at his school as much as Diwata longs to being a Speech & Debate program. After Diwata hints that she knows something she regards as shady about the drama teacher, Howie responds to her site and offers further information on the subject. This excites the newshound. Solomon, who calls Howie and insists on an interview. Howie, thinking he’s found a gay companion, is dismayed at Solomon’s grilling of him but pleased that Salem may house a kindred gay teen.
All three of Karam’s primary characters are misfits. Howie, even being gay, has the best chance of some social success because he’s good looking, well-groomed, relatively conventional is his likes and habits, and well-spoken. His biggest obstacle is being the new kid in town.
Solomon dresses well in his own way. His Lacoste polo shirts, buttoned to the top, his tan chinos, and his unfashionable but not horrible Jack Purcell sneakers may better befit a teen lad from the 1960s, but Solomon is always neat and combed. He just looks like someone from a different era, and his manner towards people in juvenile while also bearing traits of a cranky old man. His general naivety, much greater than Howie’s or Diwata’s prevails, but there’s something decrepit and crotchety in the way Solomon goes after stories and threatens people who won’t give him the information he demands. He is also miffed at the faculty advisor to the school newspaper because she won’t approve or fund his 1,001 ideas for investigative pieces, including one of Salem’s mayor.
Solomon, Howie, and Diwata form a holy trinity of the school’s outcasts. They’re, none of them, part of a crowd, but they discover and have each other.
Each wants something from the others. Diwata wants her Speech & Debate club and an audience for her various teen maunderings. Solomon wants to gain conclusive information about the drama teacher so he can cause a scandal about a gay teacher who may be preying on students. Howie also wants to learn more about the drama coach, but he’s just happy to have people with whom to hang out, strange though they are.
Karam is keen at identifying things that might interest a teenager and the obstacles teens have as they struggle for adulthoods. Despite the yelling parents, none of the three seems to be especially loved or well taken care of. They are, like Dr. Seuss’s Horton, alone in the wilderness, and at least they have each other as sounding boards and potential friends.
For all Karam reveals about the independence and insecurity of high-functioning, outspoken teens, he never takes “Speech & Debate” to levels beyond the superficial or sharply observed.
The word that kept coming to my head is “bald. It seemed Karam was touching on some important aspects of the lives of these sheltered but mostly neglected teenagers. He depicts Diwata, Howie, and Solomon trying to find their individual niches and voices. But all seems to be direct show and tell. Kevin Glaccum and his cast for Azuka Theatre keeps the show engaging and entertaining enough. The characterizations are fine, especially Dane Eissler’s as Solomon. But there’s no great dramatic moment or epiphany. Organizing the scenes in his play to correspond with the competitive categories in national Speech & Debate, Karam adheres too closely to the literal. “Speech & Debate” is lively and a tad eccentric, like its characters, but it never pierces any fundamental truth about a current generation coming of age in a world of technology and possible solipsism, and it never takes Solomon, Howie, or Diwata past their clearly displayed antics and well-defined personalities.
Nothing remarkable happens in “Speech & Debate.” Even the core mystery that holds the trio of students together, a curiosity about whether a drama coach believed to be gay has had liaison with his underage students, never gathers suspense or momentum as a great audience concern. Even when the matter becomes conclusive based on information all three of the teens has firsthand, it doesn’t cause a big stir. “Speech & Debate” becomes inert because it never goes part what you see, and the kids tell you who they are early, so you witness more reinforcement of what you already know instead of gaining insight on a misfit team working towards finding a vocation, an identity, or even positive, constructive attention.
The adults in Karam’s piece, the high school advisor and a local Salem TV reporter, both played by Zoe Richards, don’t add much texture to the mix. Glaccum and Richards elicit laughs from the vanity and duplicity of the TV reporter, but again, the humor is obvious, the mildest of comic commentary by Karam, and you wonder if the playwright can ever get past the surface in either direction. Little evolves, and nothing of consequence seems to be going on underneath.
Richards’s teacher, also plain in what she has to say, is firm with an unsatisfied Solomon. She states school policy, advises Solomon to seek stories that are more age appropriate and less seamy, and rejects the ideas Solomon proposes, reminding him she will not agree with his wishes even if he can’t comply with hers.
Karam has some funny ideas that Glaccum uses technology to illustrate well. Solomon and Howie each competed in a teen storytelling contest in which Howie submitted an honored yarn about Cain killing Abel because he finds out Abel is gay. Diwata, if not successfully, writes an opera based on “The Crucible” and featuring a defiant Mary Warren who challenges people to try to kill her. Diwata also managed to have a gay Abraham Lincoln appear.
“Speech & Debate” is original. It just stays too shallow, too what-you-see-is-what-you-get when what you see is facile and doesn’t build on the play.
Entertainment is enough of a purpose, but you can tell Karam, and Glaccum, aspire to more. Unfortunately, Karam gives Glaccum too little to work with in terms of creating anything poignant or affecting. We were all children. We all moved awkwardly from childhood to adulthood. We all found the things we like to do, and our sexuality, along the way. There should be some sense of identification and empathy with what we see Howie, Diwata, and Solomon go through. There isn’t. Passing interest was the best I could muster. I could admire what Karam was trying to do, but I could never get past the thinness with which he drew his portraits nor the baldness with which he made his points. Howie, Solomon, and Diwata are not everyday children, but except for Solomon’s obsessiveness and its influence on his behavior as a journalist, their individuality is not fascinating or unique enough to hold us or make us feel anything more than pleasantly diverted when “Speech & Debate” concludes.
Neither the show nor the production is moving. The characters pique your curiosity but only momentarily. The mystery involving the drama teacher reveals itself to be beside the point. Solomon, Howie, and Diwata can’t keep their knives out long enough to make a fuss or foment an inquiry. They more want to know if they’re right about the teacher than to do anything about him approaching other students. Their wanting to know the truth is moot because it turns out they all know it and with good reason.,
Diverting, yes. Well-performed and directed, yes. But “Speech & Debate” doesn’t have enough substantive or revelatory to sustain its brief 100 minutes. Even Glaccum’s talented, attractive cast can’t give the Azuka production heft the play does not possess and that can’t be mustered.
Rebekah Sharp brings out the self-absorption of Diwata. Not only is the characters saddled with that dreadful name, she basks in talents she believes she has but others, most notably the drama teacher, don’t notice, Diwata sees herself as an intellectual and a sophisticate. Sharp plays those qualities while keeping Diwata a girl who hasn’t figured out the world as much as she thinks. Costumer Courtney Boches is smart to dress Diwata in a much-worh, slightly altered “Wicked” T-shirt. Witches might be her thing as she is so attracted to “Wicked” and “The Crucible’ which Diwata regards as equal works.
Dane Eissler scrupulously captures the aggressive, obsessive nature of Solomon. He does not give up when he’s hunting for information, especially dirt against the drama teacher and the mayor, who has railed against homosexuality and was caught with a juvenile male in flagrante. Solomon threatens and cajoles and defies people to hang up on him or walk away.
Eissler’s Solomon is always serious and always on a mission. He doesn’t realize people can refuse to tell him what he demands is his right to know.
Solomon wants everyone to reveal all he or she knows, but he remains secretive and guarded. Karam surprises us when we realize how Solomon can write his report about the drama teacher without doing any research. Eissler plays him as a kid who is oblivious to anything he doesn’t want to accept to hear and who doesn’t mind being obnoxious in what he would call the name of finding and reporting the truth.
Bryan Black keeps the amiable Howie fairly conventional. Even Howie’s gayness is matter-of-fact. He just has to find a place to practice it in this small town his father to which his father moved him. Howie, in spite of his Cain and Abel story, doesn’t have the teenage burdens Diwata and Solomon bear. He’s a regular guy who would like to have sex with another regular guy. Howie may be lonely, but he’s more likely to find acceptance from others than Diwata and Solomon do.
Black finds Howie’s normality and plays it to advantage.
Zoe Richards is strong in both of her parts, being adamant and sardonic as the teacher, and being flighty and air-headed as the self-serving TV reporter who comes to do a story on Diwata’s “Crucible” musical but turns her report into a promo for her various instructional services.
Cat Johnson’s set is mobile enough to become a bedroom or a classroom at whim. Ben Levan’s lighting accommodates the many slides and other projected visuals Glaccum uses in “Speech & Debate.” The graphics themselves are quite well conceived and executed.
“Speech & Debate,” produced by Azuka Theatre, runs through Sunday, May 24, at Theatre X, 1340 S. 13th Street (13th and Reed Streets), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-563-1100 or by visiting www.azukatheatre.org.