Speech & Debate

 

By Stephen Karamspeech&debatej

Directed by PJ Paparelli

Starring Sadieh Rifai, Patrick Riley, Janet Ulrich Brooks & Will Allan

Produced by American Theater Co.

This immensely likable teen comedy is back for another round at ATC.

American Theater Company’s Artistic Director PJ Paparelli has remounted Stephen Karam’s 2007 teen comedy Speech & Debate five years after ATC gave the play its original Chicago premiere. Featuring three hyper-articulate teen misfits as they learn to navigate early adulthood in the so-called “information age,” Paparelli’s current staging is still likably funny and warmhearted even as it continues to ask adult questions about privacy, self-expression, and being comfortable in one’s skin.

Solomon (Will Allan), a student reporter for Salem’s high school newspaper, is given the hard line early on when a teacher (Janet Ulrich Brooks) tells him that editorials on abortion are strictly prohibited. But with journalistic ambitions going well beyond the pedestrian interests of homecoming games and student council elections, Solomon is determined to land a story that’ll make an Will Allen, Sadieh Rifai, Patrick Riley - H
impact. And his decision to pursue a tawdry sex scandal involving the school drama teacher and certain male students soon puts him in touch with Howie (William Patrick Riley). Howie is a gay teen whose earliest awkward fumblings with sex involve trolling online chat rooms for prospective partners—which is exactly where he stumbles upon his teacher. Still, Howie’s just moved to Salem and therefore a little reluctant to align himself with the outspoken Solomon.

But even Solomon’s stridency pales in comparison to that of Diwata’s (Sadieh Rifai). A fellow classmate and head of the school’s Speech & Debate Club, Diwata maintains an online video blog which she teasingly insists is supposed to be “private.” Rarely refusing the limelight, this Glee-infused superstar wannabe is adept at teaching her reticent fellow students like Solomon and Howie how to be more open and self-expressive (even as they teach her the same lesson). Thus brought together over their teacher’s sultry secret, this unlikely team of misfits must then collectively navigate the unfamiliar terrain of late adolescence, revealing even beneath their self-assured personas young people of immense vulnerability.

ATC aims to produce play’s that ask meaningful questions about what it means to be American, and Speech & Debate is no exception. This immensely funny and modest play begins with the realization that the doors of sharing, tweeting, posting, chatting, texting, and blogging have been thrown wide open. And much like the teenagers of Karam’s story, Speech & Debate asks us as Americans to consider how it is we come to share certain parts of ourselves both online and in-person: Who can we trust with certain facets of ourselves? How does one find the courage to reveal oneself at all? Are our reaching efforts for attention just yet another way to deflect from our true selves?Sadieh Rifai, Patrick Riley -V

Truth be told, Karam’s play doesn’t always deliver on the goods, and its strange to see that the main plot line concerning the drama teacher more or less seems to peter out by the end of the play, almost as though it were only a thinly veiled contrivance meant to force Karam’s teen characters to come together. Still, its flamboyant, no-holds-barred sense of humor (including a hilarious musical adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) almost makes an narrative digressions worth the detour, and even if we can spot the playwright working behind the scenes from twenty paces back, the play’s subtle revelations pretty much make it worth it.

Will Allan as the straight-laced, Lacoste-wearing Solomon captures well the character’s principled high-mindedness even as he subtly shows how such self-assurances are only the means by which Solomon protects his own secrets. And Patrick Riley gives an empathetic portrayal of the new kid in town, Howie. But Speech & Debate is ultimately Diwata’s show, and Sadieh Rifai (reprising her role from ATC’s 2008 production) is wildly uproarious, her instinctive comedic talents serving her well.

And though the jokes in Speech & Debate receive their much-earned due under Paparelli’s well-paced direction, something about the more heavily pathos-laden dramatic scenes still feels somewhat underdeveloped. Still, I venture audiences will be more than willing to endure the frolicking highs of Speech and & Debate, even if it never quite hits the more resonant lows.

RECOMMENDED

Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini

Reviewed Monday, May 13th, 2013.

Running time is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.

Speech & Debate runs until June 23rd, 2013. American Theater Co. is located at 1909 W. Byron St. For tickets call (773) 409-4125 or visit www.atcweb.org. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at http://www.theatreinchicago.com/speech-and-debate/6326/.