As anyone who watches TV’s Glee could tell you, even the popular kids have their troubles during adolescence. As for the freaks, the nerds, the outsiders? Their teen years can be one long nightmare.
Three not-cool kids are the focus of Speech & Debate, Stephen Karam’s observantly funny play-with-music that has just opened at GableStage. Various adults figure into the plot, but except for brief appearances by a teacher and a reporter (both played by Patti Gardner), Karam’s comedy (like the Peanuts comic strip) keeps the focus on the kids.
The playwright’s misfit trio consists of Diwata (Jackie Rivera), a superstar wannabe who may remind you of diva-in-training Rachel from Glee (though Karam created Diwata long before Rachel ever became a household name); Howie (David Dearstyne), a comfortably out kid who gets involved in a potentially risky online hookup; and Solomon (Ryan Didato), a dogged school newspaper reporter whose every-day attire consists of Lacoste polo shirts, khakis and the squarest imaginable sneakers ever manufactured.
The three live in Salem, Ore., where the town’s right-wing Republican mayor, an opponent of gay adoption, has been accused of having sex with teen boys. (The prescient Speech & Debate, it should be noted, was written four years before the recent scandal involving George Rekers’ trip to Europe with a young male escort.)
But a more personal, pressing issue is the behavior of the school’s unseen drama teacher, Mr. Healey, who has apparently come on to both Howie and Solomon, and who, in Diwata’s opinion, is steadfastly ignoring her blazingly obvious talent. The kids join forces to do something about Healey and his out-of-bounds behavior. Yet the real story in Speech & Debate, wrapped up as it is in clever comedy, is one of unlikely friendship and welcome self-discovery.
Though Speech & Debate doesn’t ultimately go anywhere, the audience probably doesn’t care, because Karam and GableStage turn the play into a crazily entertaining ride.