There is no reason the Lyric Stage of Boston's production of Stephen Karam's Speech and Debate should be as good as it is. The script is a send-up of afterschool specials for pomo Gen Xers placing three teen stereotypes in one room with three secrets about one lecherous drama teacher. It doesn't sound interesting or even original when you break it down, but Karam's wit and ultimate surrender to the catharsis of theatre left me ROFL-ing. It's a little John Hughes, a little John Waters, and a whole lotta fun.
What makes the play work are the easily identifiable teen archetypes as portrayed by a stellar young ensemble. First, we meet Howie, a teenage gay emigre to Salem, OR from the far more liberal shores of Portland. He is an outsider both literally and figuratively in this conservative town as he strives to find an adult who will sponsor a Gay/Straight Student Alliance. While chatting on-line, he discovers an adult who is interested in far less philanthropic activities. However, when he realizes that the screen name belongs to the drama teacher from his school, he is armed with blackmail and cursed with being exposed. Entering into this dilemma is the meddlesome Howie, an uptight, over-achieving Log-Cabin-Republican-in-the-making. Howie wants to expose the hypocrisy of Republican politicians who vote against LGBTQ legislation and then send sexually explicit text messages to same-sex pages in Congress, hypothetically speaking. Howie's journalistic ambitions are quashed by the school newspaper's teacher/mentor so he decides to take matters into his own hands. His tip comes through the "mono-blog" of Diwata, a frumpy, dramatic diva who exposes the drama teacher's pension for young boys out of spite for being cast in insignificant roles in school plays. Diwata becomes the doyenne of this trifecta of teenage angst and denial using her knowledge about both Howie and Solomon as blackmail to get them to join the Speech and Debate Club through which her dramatic talents can finally have a platform. The plot then turns to a point and counterpoint of honesty versus denial, truth versus cover-up, an orchestration of ethics against the melange of teenage baggage.
The primary reason that this play works so well is the inspired casting by director Jeremy Johnson. Chris Connor's Howie is the perfect gay outsider in skin-tight goth clothing and ghetto-gay attitude. His signature head pop and turn which communicates exasperation at his plight in life and scenes is worthy of copyright. Likewise, Alex Wyse's uptight Solomon exudes every insecurity ever felt by a teenager in denial about his sexuality. His pristine appearance coupled with physical tension and combustible vocals portray a teen who is on the edge of bursting out of the closet or hiding in it indefinitely. Likewise Rachel Hunt's performance as Diwata is the perfect annoying, self-gratifying, forensic/speech/drama diva who everyone remembers from High School. She is the drama kid archetype and fag hag in training. Luckily, Ms. Hunt's adept performance makes this stereotypical character both guffaw-inspiring and cringe-inducing. The most brilliant aspect of this production is that these cast members are young, non-Equity performers, which make it both age appropriate and give it a certain unpolished vibrancy that an entirely Equity production would lack. The characters can be summed up as Jack from "Will and Grace" meets Cameron from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" meets America Ferrera.
Jeremy Johnson's direction of the piece is inspired beyond just casting. He does an amazing job at serving all sides of the 3/4 round theatre, which many recent directors have neglected. The set by Skip Curtiss is serviceable. A few of the choices - such as the blue wave across the back wall were distracting - but, it was otherwise sufficient for the play. The use of the classroom white board which doubles as a screen to project each scene's title is clever; if only they could have worked out a smoother tech schedule so that we didn't see the technicians pulling the curtain behind. The costumes by Mallory Frers and lighting by Margo Caddell were also suitable to the low demands of this show.
It's a shame that Speech and Debate closed this evening and that it was probably missed by a significant portion of the Boston audience. This is the type of show that speaks to younger generations and makes older generations laugh at youth's folly, both of which are admirable aims for the theatre. I sincerely believe that this is the type of educational theatre that high school and college audiences shoudl be seeing. Naturally, teachers pack the houses for student matinees of Shakespeare and "literary" performances (such as anything at the Huntington Theatre). However, my experience with contemporary students tells me that they would get more out of this play than any fabulous production of Romeo and Juliet or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This play speaks directly to young audiences' experiences while providing a thoroughly entertaining evening of theatre for those of us who have lived through adolescence and understand the simultaneous importance and triviality of "speech and debate."