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'Speech and Debate:' Brave New World - Discuss



Speech and Debate

By Stephen Karam

Director, Jeremy Johnson; Scenic Design, Skip Curtiss; Costume Design, Mallory Frers; Lighting Design, Margo Caddell; Sound Design, Steven McIntosh; Production Stage Manager, Dawn Schall; Assistant Stage Manager, Amanda Ostrow

CAST: Howie, Chris Conner; Solomon, Alex Wyse; Diwata, Rachael Hunt; Teacher/Reporter, Maureen Keiller

Performances through April 25 @ The Lyric Stage Company of Boston

Box Office 617-585-5678 or

Speech and Debate postulates that children are seen, but not heard and subsequently becomes a primer for adolescents who want to rectify the status quo. Playwright Stephen Karam introduces three high school misfits who form a speech and debate club to make their voices heard and employs every up-to-the-minute social, cultural, and cyber reference to tell their stories. In the Boston premiere, Director Jeremy Johnson's broad interpretation gives latitude to his trio of young actors, all making their Lyric Stage debuts, all seemingly born to play these roles.

Chris Conner (Howie) is picture-perfect as the iconic gay, Alex Wyse (Solomon) is earnest as the excitable student journalist, and Rachael Hunt (Diwata) is uninhibited as the way-out-there drama queen respectively who are brought together by a scandal ripped from the headlines involving one of their teachers. They communicate via chat rooms and blogs, spreading rumors and revealing their innermost secrets without regard to the consequences. As they drop their guards and get to know each other, they find that they actually have much in common. And one thing is certain: they will NOT be ignored.

The play is set in present day Salem, Oregon, which allows for clever parallels to be drawn with Salem, Massachusetts and allusions made to witch hunts and puritanical sensibilities. Diwata identifies with Mary Warren, one of the accusers in The Crucible, when she posts falsified items on her blog about Mr. Healy, the drama teacher who does not cast her in the parts she believes she deserves. As a newcomer from Portland, Howie sneers that people in Salem "think they're liberal, but they're liberal Puritans." Hoping to come up with a scoop for the school newspaper The Trojan after his teacher rejects his piece on abortion as being too controversial, Solomon pursues sensational stories about the Mayor and Healy allegedly having sex with boys.

Having been dismissed by the adults in their lives and witnessing the hypocrisy of teachers and political figures, the teenagers attempt to rebel against fear and cynicism by taking positive action, channeling their anger and disappointment into organizing - first the speech and debate club, and then a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance. While observing their coming of age story, we viscerally share some of the angst of high school, a balancing act of simultaneously trying to fit in while pretending not to care. In addition, Karam shows a flair for realistic, comedic dialogue, making Speech and Debate very entertaining, yet not as light as it appears to be. He takes on the serious adolescent issues of identity, sexuality, and belonging, yet camouflages the message in a coven of overzealous, hormonal teens. 

Performing the dual roles of teacher and reporter, Maureen Keiller is equally adept at playing the frustrated guardian at the gate, defending duplicitous school policy against the persistent onslaught of student questions, and the wolf in sheep's clothing who takes advantage of the kids in order to promote her book about adolescents, teaching them some important life lessons in the process.

Skip Curtiss has designed a utilitarian set that looks like a classroom with a color block floor, an American flag, and a poster of John F. Kennedy on the wall. A large whiteboard is the focal point upstage center. In the first scene, it serves as an enlarged computer screen, showing the online chat between Howie and an anonymous older man. Debate terms appear on the board to introduce later scenes. A table on wheels is moved around to indicate different locations, from the school, to Diwata's bedroom, to the restaurant where she works. The most integral props are the laptops and cell phones, standard issue equipment for today's adolescent army. Contemporary music underscores the scene changes and Hunt gets to show off her vocal ability when Diwata breaks into song a few times.

There are no long-winded speeches, but lots of discussions of opposing viewpoints that I would categorize as squabbles, not debates. Johnson keeps the cast moving briskly and the energy level never flags. The audience stays in the flow right along with them, laughing at both sides of the argument. There can be little disagreement that in Speech and Debate Karam has captured the cyber-Zeitgeist...and our attention.

Photo: Maureen Keiller, Alex Wyse, Rachael Hunt, Chris Conner







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