Stephen Karam’s comedy Speech & Debate points a webcam lens at three teenage outsiders living up Salem, Oregon way, while at the same time making strong points about hypocritical politicians, “ex-gay” ministries, and the importance of coming out. Having seen two brilliant productions of it, this reviewer finds its current Orange County Premiere at Theatre Out a letdown.

We first meet new-boy-in-town Howie (JT Corzine), 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. Meanwhile, school reporter Solomon (Paul Anderson) is attempting in vain to convince a teacher (Jennifer Pearce) to let him write an exposé for the school newspaper on Salem’s hypocritical mayor. The teacher suggests the school’s Speech & Debate team as a more acceptable alternative.

Howie and Solomon’s lives intertwine thanks to geek girl Diwata (Cassi Jerkins), 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 a queeny, time-traveling gay kid, complete with Biblical references and illustrations of his take on the tale of Cain and Abel.

Diwata has her own aspirations of theatrical greatness. She’s writing an original musical based on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible which centers on Mary Warren (the role she’ll be playing, of course) and features 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.

Gifted young playwright Karam understands teens about as well as anyone writing today. He particularly 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. I love them, but I also love the way the Army men look in and out of their uniforms.”)

The cast at Theatre Out show promise in their performances, but director Anthony Galleran seems unaware of the true comic potential of Karam’s quirky, multifaceted characters and the laughs that they ought to be getting, but for the most part are not, or at least not yet. Corzine is cute and likable as Howie, but by upping the character’s self-described queeniness, we could have a truly fabulous character (think Glee’s Kurt Hummell) and not simply a pleasant one. Anderson exhibits nice comic timing with his dry, even deadpan delivery, but instead of a young man whose nerdiness borders on the asexual, we get a character who seems gay from the get-go, and since Anderson looks at least a decade older than Solomon’s sixteen years, perhaps the talented actor was not the best choice for the role. Pearce’s competent pair of performances (she’s also a reporter) could benefit greatly from distinctly different vocal patterns and mannerisms to make teacher and reporter clearly separate women. (A wig for one of them would help too.) Finally, there is Diwata, a role that offers an actress the chance to truly dazzle an audience with the kooky, quirky teen’s fire, passion, and downright outrageousness. Jerkins gives us a cute, squeaky mouse of a Diwata, but this is a case where much much more could make for a performance to rave about.

David C. Carnevale’s set is a clever chalk-on-greenboard design, but could have been conceived so that lengthy scene changes would not add an extra five minutes to Speech & Debate’s running time. Also, situating projections of Howie’s online chats on opposite sides of Theatre Out’s wide stage from where Howie is typing makes it a challenge to read Howie’s chat and check out his facial expressions at the same time. Carnevale’s costume choices are good ones, with the exception of the teacher’s jeans and loose-fitting top, too casual for someone as by-the-rules as Karam has written her to be. Christina L. Munich’s lighting is, as always, an effective one, and Galleran’s sound design works well too. Frankie Marrone has choreographed a dance sequence that charms, but ought to be a showstopper. Stephanie Cooke is stage manager and Joey Baital vocal coach.

With a stronger directorial vision and hand, Theater Out’s production of Speech & Debate could be one that audiences would leave raving about. As is, Speech & Debate makes for a pleasant stay in Salem, Oregon when it could make for an unforgettable one.

Theatre Out, The Empire Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.
Click here for current performance schedule, closing date, and reservation line.
–Steven Stanley
February 19, 2011

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