A Salem, Oregon high school teacher cruises school restrooms and gay.com to pick up 18-year-old students for sex.  Salem’s conservative mayor is rumored to up to similar shenanigans, all the while promoting an anti-gay agenda. Sounds like the basis for a stark, current-as-today’s-headlines drama, right?

Wrong. 28-year-old Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, getting its West Coast Premiere at The Blank Theatre, turns out to be a wildly funny look at teen life in the Great Northwest. That it also makes strong points about hypocritical politicians, “ex-gay” ministries, and the importance of coming out is icing on a most uproarious cake.

We first meet 18-year-old Salem newcomer Howie, who’s been out and proud since the age of 10, at his laptop, surfing the Internet in search of sex with an older man, their getting-to-know-you chat projected on a screen above Howie’s head to hilarious effect.  Meanwhile, school reporter Solomon is attempting in vain to convince a teacher to let him write an exposé for the school newspaper on Salem’s hypocritical mayor.  The censorial teacher suggests the school’s Speech & Debate team as a more acceptable alternative.

Howie and Solomon’s lives intertwine thanks to geek girl Diwata, first seen musically “vlogging” her frustration at not having been given a leading role in North Salem High’s production of Once Upon A Mattress. (The drama teacher is so conservative that Mattress’s pregnant Lady Larkin now “just really wants to get married,” something which the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate will not be happy about should Diwata choose to spill the beans.)

When Diwata posts the drama teacher’s email so that listeners can express their outrage at her having been denied a part in Mattress, Howie recognizes it as the one belonging to his trolling-for-teen-sex chat partner, and soon Solomon has joined his two geeky schoolmates in a plan to out both drama teacher and mayor via their Speech & Debate presentations.

Howie is the kind of 21st Century gay teen who’s never had trouble accepting his sexuality. While still a pre-teen, he wrote a story about time-traveling gay kid, complete with Biblical references and illustrations.

Diwata has her own aspirations of theatrical greatness.  She’s writing an original musical based on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, centering on Mary Warren (the role she’ll be playing, of course) and featuring melodramatic lines not found in Miller’s original, like “Try to hang me.  See how strong my neck is.” 

The three teens begin meeting to plan their Speech & Debate program, each with his or her own aim, Howie in hopes of getting support for the Gay-Straight Alliance he wants to form, Diwata hoping that her presentation will showcase her dramatic and musical “gifts,” and Solomon looking for a public forum for his sex scandal exposé.

In the course of their meetings, the trio discover (and reveal) a great deal about themselves and each other. Solomon, especially, proves to be much more than immediately meets the eye, and to have more in common with Howie than might have been imagined.

Playwright Karam understands teens about as well as anyone writing today.  After all, less than a decade ago he was a teenager himself, and an award winning participant in The Blank’s Nationwide Young Playwrights Festival three years in a row.  It’s thus entirely fitting that the first fully staged West Coast production of Speech & Debate should be at The Blank, under the always electric direction of Daniel Henning.

Karam understands the contradictions of contemporary teen life, as for example when Diwata expresses her outrage at Solomon having read her online and therefore very public blog. “That’s my private journal!” she protests. The playwright is also possessed of an offbeat imagination, as in the skit Diwata has written for her and Howie to perform, in which a teenage (and gay) Abe Lincoln (Howie) and The Crucible’s Mary Warren (Diwata) meet (and duet) to Diwata’s original music and lyrics:  “Boy whatcha doin’? Boy whatcha thinkin’?  Boy what’s your name?”  “Abraham Lincoln.”  (In Diwata’s skit, Lincoln plans to tell his parents that “I’m a little different, and that I love them, but I also love the way the Army men look in and out of their uniforms.”)

In the role of Diwata, Mae Whitman positively dazzles, giving what is sure to be one of the best and most colorful comedic performances of the year.  It helps that Karam has given Diwata more quirks than a phonebook has Smiths (such as her plan to climax her Speech & Debate presentation by stripping down to a flesh-colored body stocking), but mostly it’s the gifted Whitman abandoning inhibitions and embracing her inner wackiness.

Aaron Himelstein’s superbly understated performance in Dickie And Babe: The Truth About Leopold And Loeb made StageSceneLA’s Best Of list for 2007-2008.  His work here as Solomon is equally memorable, as spontaneous and natural a performance as you’ll ever see, so “in the moment” that it seems almost unbelievable that these are memorized lines he is speaking.  In Himelstein’s talented hands, Solomon becomes so much more than just the words he is speaking, adding layer upon layer to the character Karam created on the printed page.

Michael Welch (Howie) is also a terrific actor, whose work opposite Whitman and Himelstein positively crackles.  It’s a performance that doesn’t quite fit Howie, though. A gay teen who comes out at age 10, and especially one who creates an autobiographical character he himself describes as “queeny,” is unlikely to be the very un-queeny Howie we see in this production. It seems improbable that Diwata would have (as she claims) immediately taken this Howie to be gay, and when (likely in jest) Howie declares his love for Diwata, it seems all too credible, probably not Karam’s intent for the scene.

Covering Dale Dickey in the dual roles of high school teacher and radio reporter is a fine Elena Campbell-Martinez.

Design and technical elements are first-rate—Ian P. Garrett’s production design, Bich Vu’s costumes (snaps for Diwata’s deliciously frumpy outfits), Warren Davis’ sound design, and Evelyn Halus’ music direction.

The Blank has a history of long-running cult hits, such as the much extended The Book Of Liz. Speech & Debate has much of the quirkiness that made Liz such a popular gal, and when word gets out about how uniquely funny Karam’s writing and the cast’s performances are, The Blank’s season opener is likely to provoke audience laughter and cheers for months to come.

The Blank’s 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 18. 2008
Photos: Rick Baumgartner

Comments are closed.