REVIEW: “Speech and Debate” at Barrington Stage

by Macey Levin

There is an upbeat, hilarious, very contemporary show which is a valuable experience for both young and older audiences at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, MA.  Speech and Debate which premiered off-Broadway in 2007 was one of the first plays written by Stephen Karam who won a Tony Award last year for Humans.

 The play opens with Howie (Austin Davidson,) a student at a Salem, Oregon high school,  corresponding via e-mail with an older man setting up a date to meet in a park.  The messages are on screens in projections designed by Alex Basco Koch at the rear of Reid Thompson’s finely designed utilitarian set.

 We then meet Solomon (Ben Getz,) a reporter for the high school newspaper, writing a story about Salem’s mayor having illicit relations with several teen-age boys.  His teacher/advisor (Edelen McWilliams) attempts to dissuade and then refuses to allow him to write the story.  Being determined, he locates Howie for an interview that blossoms into a tenuous friendship.

Diwata (Betsy Hogg) takes over the stage as she chatters in her initial podcast about her disappointment at not being cast in last year’s school play The Crucible (she wanted to play and identifies with Mary Warren, one of the accused in the Salem, MA witch trials;) she has also been passed over for this year’s musical Once Upon a Mattress.  The fact that she has little talent is not part of her conversation.  She focuses on Mr. Healy, the drama teacher and her suspicions about his sexual leanings.

Howie and Solomon are persuaded by Diwata, who has named herself president, to join the school’s fledgling Speech and Debate club.  In order to receive approval for this new activity they have to present it to the school board.  She coaches the boys in the various categories of declarative speeches, oral interpretation, Lincoln-Douglas debates, group interpretation et al, (these activities are also the titles of the various scenes in the play)

Their presentation to the board takes the form of a musical Diwata has written centered on a time traveler, a young gay Abraham Lincoln and a feisty Mary Warren.  The song and the choreography by Tim Pare are the hilarious highlight of this funky play.

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Despite the comic aspects of the work, there is also a dark undertone.  As they become friendlier they reveal intimate secrets of their lives.  They reflect on what it is like to be an adolescent who does not conform to the stereotypical image, to be rejected by their peers and to become loners and defensive.  The mundane tone of the high school environment and the restrictions imposed on their growth as individuals are also dramatized.

The three young actors are priceless.  They capture the swagger and vulnerability of adolescent character traits while they cavort through their various machinations.    In addition to creating the personae they are obviously engaging musical performers, though their characters are poor performers.  This is difficult to pull off, but they do it with great aplomb.  McWilliams competently plays Solomon’s teacher and a reporter.

Director Jessica Holt maintains a rapid pace that propels the show forward without becoming maudlin or didactic.  There is so much freedom on the stage that the scenes ripple with energy, even through the quieter moments.  She, along with Karam, has captured the conflicted world of the teenager.  Nikki Delhomme’s costumes fortify the character’s attitudes and place in life while Burke brown’s lights enhance the brightness and delight of the production.

The show is an utter joy.

Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam; Directed by Jessica Holt; Cast:  Austin Davidson (Howie) Ben Getz (Solomon) Edelen McWilliams (Teacher/Reporter) Betsy Hogg (Diwata); Music direction; Dan Pardo; Choreographer: Tim Pare; Scene design:  Reid Thompson; Costume design: Nikki Delhomme; Lighting design: Burke Brown; Sound design: Palmer Hefferan; Projection design: Alex Basco Koch; Stage Manager: Paul Vella; Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission ; Barrington Stage Co., St. Germain Stage, Linden St., Pittsfield, MA ; From 7/13/17; closing 7/29/17

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