A Rule-Breaking SPEECH & DEBATE
In 2005, the citizens of Spokane, Washington, voted to recall their mayor, Jim West, after he was caught pseudonymously trolling gay chat rooms despite having long been a proponent of anti-gay legislation, including a bill that would have prohibited homosexuals from working with children. The following year, writer Stephen Karam found in West’s downfall—with its attendant themes of hypocrisy and the ever-blurring divide between public and private life—the outlines of a play, though not the one you might expect. In Speech & Debate, which opened off-Broadway in 2007 and last week at Columbia’s Rep Stage, the adults guilty of sexual misconduct never appear onstage. Instead, Karam shifts the setting to Salem, Oregon—a town full of “liberal Puritans”—and focuses on a trio of teenagers who form unexpected bonds as the founding (and only) members of their high school forensics team, which they intend to use as a soapbox from which to address issues their parents and teachers have labeled taboo.
How these misfits end up together, somewhat against their will, is the least convincing aspect of Karam’s script. The forensics competition toward which the plot builds never seems a particularly urgent goal; in truth, the whole structure could probably be razed without sacrificing any of the play’s core: three lonely young people, capable of great kindness as well as cruelty, and thrust into adulthood with minimal guidance save what they can offer each other. In reluctant bursts of eloquence, they talk of abortions, sexual abuse, gay conversion camps, but also lighter topics, rife with allusions to pop culture. What matters is not where or why these conversations happen, but simply that they do.
At Rep Stage, director Eve Muson has assembled a cast entirely worthy of these characters. Florrie Bagel plays Diwata, a would-be actress convinced the rest of the world has missed her obvious talents; Sam Ludwig plays Solomon, an aspiring journalist who ferrets out people’s secrets to distract himself from his own; and Parker Drown plays Howie, who outed himself at ten and wants only to get through his senior year so he can get out of stifling Salem. Each makes a believable teenager; more crucially, each creates such a distinct personality, though initially they seem to have nothing in common—indeed, at times they hate each other—they find room within themselves to foster the kind of intimacy that experts are continually pronouncing obsolete in our digital age.
Karen Novack is sharp in two minor roles: a sympathetic, ultimately ineffective teacher (whom I suspect Karam wanted to develop more than he actually did), and a self-serving reporter whom Karam captures perfectly. But the show belongs to Bagel, Ludwig, and Drown, who prove talented singer-dancers as well as actors. (Ludwig is particularly impressive playing a character who emphatically has no aptitude for singing or dancing.) Speech & Debate is not quite a musical, but Karam composes several numbers for Diwata, who fancies herself a songwriter. She ropes Howie and Solomon into performing scenes from her work-in-progress, a (very) loose adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (set, for those who miss the mildly strained irony, four centuries ago in that other Salem). Karam finds just the right note between affection and satire, and Bagel, with support from Ludwig and Drown, throws herself so unselfconsciously into the spotlight, we happily forgive her character’s lack of taste.
Music director Aaron Broderick and choreographer Renée Brozic Barger assist Muson in transitioning seamlessly between real life and musical fantasyland. Costumer Melanie Clark invents some quirky touches for the histrionic Diwata, and props designer Lian French finds the perfect overstuffed backpack for the overachieving Solomon. James Fouchard’s set design and Dan Covey’s lighting carve out equal spaces for three bedrooms, each defined by a different object—Diwata’s keyboard, Solomon’s computer, Howie’s beanbag chair—and backed by giant screens upon which are projected forensics-themed scene titles: “Extemporaneous Commentary,” “Group Interpretation,” Student Congress.”