Regional Reviews: Boston
Speech and Debate
Stephen Karam's 2008 play Speech and Debate is a great fit for Bad Habit Productions. Celebrating nine years in Boston, Bad Habit has themed its season "To Face Ourselves"an idea that recurs throughout Karam's tribute to adolescence and self-acceptance. The three high-school students we see are outsiders to their Salem classmates and teachers, whom one student describes as liberal Puritans. They are too geeky, too gay to fit in. And even though they're brought together by a school scandal, they find themselves opening up like they never have to anyone else.
There's Howie, who came out at nine and acts too cool for everything. His only seeming interest is starting a Gay-Straight Alliance at school, but he can't find anyone to join. Solomon is committed to being taken seriously as a journalist, but he looks like a nerd in his white sneakers and Lacoste sweaters. Then there's Diwata, who launches the Speech and Debate team to realize her dream of performing, somehow, no matter the venue. At night, she records a podcast in which she improvs songs and maligns Mr. Healey, the drama teacher, for never casting her.
At Diwata's first Speech and Debate meeting, Solomon (the only other attendee) questions her about a comment Howie had left on her podcast. Has Mr. Healey, a 36-year-old teacher, really been talking to high school boys like Howie in AOL chatrooms, he wants to know. Solomon's quest to cover the story, along with Diwata's drive to launch Speech and Debate, set off an unusual friendship among the three.
From coming out and losing their virginity to Mr. Healey's rumored pedophilia, these teenagers have heavy secrets to shareso it's a relief that Karam also lets them be their wonderfully weird selves. Should we be shocked, the play seems to ask, if 18-year-olds cruise the park at midnight? Didn't many of us have to deal with pretty adult decisions at their age?
All three young actors find the humor and honesty in their characters' teenage angst. Howie and Solomon (as played by Evan Vihlen and Ross Magnant) each have their own insecurities and unease admitting what they actually want. Katie Elinoff as Diwataa standoutreminded me of every drama kid who knew she had talent no one else could see. When tensions get too high, Elinoff has the perfect comic timing to defuse them. There are also two older characters, but they are more sketches of authority figures than real women. As a teacher and a reporter, Veronica Anastasio Wiseman doesn't have much to work with. The play might have been stronger without any adults intruding on the teens' safe space.
Director Rebecca Bradshaw zeroes in on a complicated nostalgia for youth culture in 2007. As the audience enters the theater, the music of Fall Out Boy and Blink-182 welcomes us back to high school. And the costumes by Amanda Ostrow are spot-on, from Howie's tight "emo" pants to Diwata's defiant colorful leggings, critics be damned. There are many mid-2000s elements that amuse now, from Instant Messenger to Diwata's obsession with Wicked. But a decade later, much of Karam's writing feels especially timely. Solomon, a proud pro-life Democrat, wants to write an essay on abortion, but is told that topic is off limits. And while a gay teenager might feel more accepted growing up in Oregon today, many other debates here have only intensified. Women's health, abstinence-only educationtake your pick. These aren't appropriate for school, the adults say.
In fact, as Speech and Debate argues, these teenagers know a lot already. They just need a platform, even an Arthur Miller musical, to make their voices heard. Bradshaw and Bad Habit get high marks here. This debate team finds their way to being adults, and as we watch, we feel like kids again.
Speech and Debate is presented by Bad Habit Productions through April 10, 2016, at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston, MA 02116. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at badhabitproductions.org, or by phone at 617-933-8600.