Speech & Debate
Teenage misfits expose school scandal, finding laughs along the way
|American Theater Company presents|
|Speech & Debate|
Review by Keith Glab
Speech & Debate was Artistic Director PJ Paparelli’s first enterprise with American Theater Company back in 2008. Paparelli now closes his fifth season in this role by directing a reprisal of his successful debut comedy.
The mayor of Salem, Oregon has been caught sleeping with teenage boys. Solomon (Will Allan), a 16-year old high school student, wants to cover the story for the school paper, but soon turns to hounding Mr. Healy, the school’s drama teacher, on similar charges. Howie (William Patrick Riley), an 18-year old gay transfer student, is the one who learns of Mr. Healy’s extracurricular activities through an online chat. He and Solomon meet through another student’s podcast. Diwata (Sadieh Rifai), a quirky musical theatre enthusiast, badmouths Mr. Healy on her podcast because he chose not to cast her in the school musical.
These three awkward adolescents comprise the only members of the school’s Speech and Debate Club. Their union remains tenuous as each student knows secrets that the others don’t want revealed and blackmail each other to get what they want. An absurd romp reaches its apex when the three choreograph a dance number that involves Abraham Lincoln, Marry Warren from The Crucible, Able from The Bible, and skinsuit unitards.
Sadieh Rifai reprises her role from the 2008 production, and really gets into the skin of her character. She hits the comedic moments extremely well, but also provides an underlying depth and seriousness to her character. William Patrick Riley delivers a refreshingly understated performance as an openly gay teenager, his dry sarcasm playing well against Rifai’s outrageousness. Janet Ulrich Brooks excels in two contrasting roles, first as a sensible conservative schoolteacher and then as a spontaneous liberal reporter. Allan has some good moments as Solomon, but also exhibits coarse acting traits, such as facial freezes and monotonous delivery.
Several story threads fail to get resolved, and only one of the characters undergoes a notable change. The audience must suspend their disbelief from time to time, particularly with the initial premise that a school teacher would be so careless as to use the same email address for school activities as he does for online sex rooms. It’s worth noting that this 2007 script provides a shockingly dated take on how the internet is used, highlighting the lightning-quick pace with which technology and social media are evolving.
But it’s hard to deny the entertainment value of Speech & Debate. Paparelli’s straightforward direction allows his energetic cast to execute a script teeming with humor. Add in Andrew Wheatley’s thumping sound design, along with some very interesting acting choices, and there need be little debate as to whether this production is worth seeing.
Speech & Debate continues through June 23rd at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $38-$43, available by phone (773-409-4125) or through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at atcweb.org. (Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
PJ Paparelli (director), Rebecca Spooner (asst. director), Laura Matthews (music director), Al Evangelista (choreographer), William Boles (set design), Sally Dolembo (costumes), Jesse Klug (lighting), Andrew Wheatley (sound design), Rasean Davonte Johnson (projection design), Deborah Chesterman (stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)