First off, the production had some problems: The director inserted into the script a convention where each scene opens with a description of a speech and debate event. It's a cute idea, but tends to break up the action too much for my taste. And, on the script side, the play could probably have ended several times before it does, so it does start to feel a little long. But these are all problems of the text, more than the production, and while they do throw some wrenches into this production, overall, the actors and director overcome them to create a fun evening of theatre.
The production opens on an online chat between a young gay man and an older man he met online, and this conversation becomes the fulcrum for the rest of the action. The staging of this first scene is clever, but the gimmick of the online chat sort of keeps the pace a little too slow at the start - an issue that is never quite fully remedied - but the charm and energy of the three young actors held my attention and kept the play lively. Scene by scene we follow three offbeat teens: the very-out-of-the-closet gay senior who's just trying to keep his head down until graduation (Robbie Dwight as Howie), the overzealous, socially awkward reporter for the school paper (Michael Lopetrone as Solomon) and the self-proclaimed starlet whose natural talent is cruelly overlooked by the short-sighted director of the school's theatre department (Ashley Shamoon as Diwata). Each character is lovingly and believably drawn, and the actors are committed to every moment. Here and there the script provides them with some overdramatic hystrionics, but the charm and earnestness of these actors handily overcomes most of the triteness in the script and succeeds in highlighting the genuine confusion, struggle and pathos that - let's face it - is a part of all of our high school experiences in one way or another. The staging is simple and, in most cases, fairly effective. And there are a few scenes that are so over the top fun that if you don't fall madly in love with these little misfits, you might want to have your soul checked. Krista Schafer also makes a few appearances in the thankless roles of a teacher and a reporter, bringing in a touch of that grown up world that so frustrates and yet attracts our wayward teens.
Sadly, the technical elements leave much to be desired - there is no incidental music during the scene changes, which makes them feel very long, and the lighting is a little clunky. But these are small shortcomings in the grand scheme of things, as the story and the characters are interesting enough to make the evening worthwhile. Director Topher Payne has definitely put his focus on showcasing the vivid characters, and he successfully leads his actors in composing their insecurities and eccentricities into lovable portraits of sort of Every-teens. Dealing with homosexuality, censorship, abortion and other hot-button issues, Speech and Debate asks questions that deserve to be asked and reminds all of us grown-ups to think twice about the way we interact with those delicate beings we call teenagers.
Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam (Director: Topher Payne; Michael Lopetrone as Solomon, Ashley Shamoon as Diwata, Robbie Dwight as Howie, Krista Schafer as Teacher/Reporter) continues at the Elizabeth Theatre at the Park Bar August 12 & 19 at 8:00pm. Tickets are $5 (which leaves you a couple extra bucks to grab a beer or something from the bar conveniently located right next to the stage!). For more information, visit www.drastictheatrecompany.com.