SPEECH AND DEBATE by Stephen Karam – Secret Rose Theatre – Los Angeles (North Hollywood) Theater Review

by Tony Frankel on August 18, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

Post image for SPEECH AND DEBATE by Stephen Karam – Secret Rose Theatre – Los Angeles (North Hollywood) Theater Review

TEENAGERS YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH

It’s a wonder when a playwright can capture the vernacular of three misfit teens, but to intersperse an uncanny insight into the angst of these determining years is a feat of magic. In Speech and Debate at the Secret Rose Theatre, playwright Stephen Karam has not only created three of the most believable, empathetic teenagers ever put on stage, but with crackling humor and vivacity. These kids are drawn so perfectly imperfect, even though the script is rambling at times and could use some judicious editing.

The most thrilling aspect is that director Jon Cortez is a maven when it comes to casting: each of the three teens is faultless in their portrayals of fish-out-of-water adolescents coming to grips with identity, hastened by taboo subjects that most adults would find troubling.

The play is based on a real-life sex scandal involving a politician’s dalliance with a gay teenager. Recently transplanted to Salem, Oregon, openly gay Howie (Matt Strunin) discovers that the adult cruising him on-line is none other than his high school drama teacher. Solomon (Simon Daniel Lees) is the high school journalist, frustrated because the teacher (Nina Donato) does not allow him to write about thorny issues such as abortion or Republican gay scandals. Bored and friendless Diwata (Tiffany Jordan) is holding court with her web blog; she has it out for the drama teacher (who clearly does not recognize her formidable talents) so she asks the folks in cyberspace to dish any dirt they can find on this teacher (all the while improvising hysterical songs using three chords on her Casio).

The three unite to form the school’s first Speech and Debate club, but that just becomes a conduit for their personal agendas. They all seem hopeful and yet desperately fearful that their secrets will be revealed (that’s so teenager). This paradigm makes revengeful idealists out of them: Mickey and Judy meet Rasputin. They cerebrally circle each other like tigers pacing around their prey.

One of the greatest ways to create conflict in a script is by having one character dare another to do something far outside of their comfort zone. As secrets begin to emerge, each character ups the ante of dramatic tension by challenging another to perform a revelation of significant proportions – in the media, no less. These provocateurs are feeling out the limits of what is possible during those fleeting moments of formative youth; first with a greedy intention, and later as a means of bonding.

Miss Jordan, the nobody-understands-me, burgeoning performance artist Diwata, manages to incorporate pathos with pushiness. She is Diwata. We completely buy that she is capable of developing “Crucible,” her musical take on the Arthur Miller play, in which she channels Idina Menzel as Mary Warren! Mr. Strunin’s Matt perfectly embodies the superiority of one so mature as to come out of the closet at nine; he never indicates it, but we sense his longing for connection – a stunning achievement. Mr. Lees, as the conflicted Solomon, shows us what a headstrong teenager is like when he is suddenly caught off guard – you can actually see guilt rise to his blushing cheeks even as he pontificates.

Director Jon Cortez allows his cast to shine, but the staging can suffer from simplicity and stagnancy; every scene is enjoyable, but they receive the same pacing, thereby threatening us with tedium. For example, when Solomon and Howie are having a lengthy phone conversation from their rooms on each side of the stage, the scene begs for them to break the fourth wall of the bedroom and carry their phones around the stage.

Being that this piece premiered at the Roundabout in New York in 2007, one wonders if Speech and Debate’s script will ever be fully polished (it sags toward the end, and the two hour piece is screaming to have an intermission) but this reviewer was delighted that he got a chance to meet these teenagers. You may wonder about your own past, and even be relieved that there will never be an easy fix for the maelstrom that is adolescence. Go see it.

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Jon Cortez

scheduled to end August 29 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://www.facebook.com/pages/North-Hollywood-CA/Speech-and-Debate/124979410851745?v=info&ref=ts

Leave a Comment