Thursday, February 21, 2008

Arguing for Acceptance

"Speech & Debate" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/ Black Box Theatre, February 20, 2008

Stephen Karam's play has enjoyed a well-deserved, extended run at the Roundabout's off-off-Broadway basement on W46th St. I believe it is the inaugural production for this space, and an auspicious start it is.

The story centers on three high school misfits, Howie (Gideon Glick), Solomon (Jason Fuchs) and Diawata (Sarah Steele), each searching for his/her own form of recognition. Solomon longs for the scoop that will make him a journalist, Diawata longs for the glamour of the stage. Howie just wants to find a boyfriend and finish the torture that is being gay in high school.

Mr. Karam has, very interestingly I thought, structured each scene along the rules of the NFL (that's the National Forensics League, which creates the rules for high school debate teams across the US). For those of you who weren't debate nerds in high school, some of the categories that Mr. Karam illuminates so skillfully include:
  • Dramatic Interpretation
  • Original Oratory
  • Duo Interpretation
  • Lincoln Douglas Debate
  • Extemporaneous Oratory
Mr. Fuchs' performance as Solomon anchors this production. He's got the precocious, too-smart-for-his-own-good, wannabe journalist thing down pat. Pushy, pretentious and condescending, he demonstrates all the signs of a teenager with something to hide (which he does).

Mr. Glick's Howie suffers at times from the affected speech pattern he has chosen. Otherwise, he also has nailed the mercurial behaviour of an outsider who recognizes that high school will nto be his time to shine, but still kinda wishes it were.

Ms. Steele's Diawata is the least consistent performance. She has moments of brilliance, particularly during her live podcasts of her "monoblog." She dies struggle from time to time with keeping in character when Diawata lands some of her funniest lines.

As the only adults in the story, Susan Blackwell (from [title of show] fame) feels particularly underused. She is tender and concerned as Solomon's faculty sponsor for this school paper, then has a marvelous turn as a local journalist/bookwriter who interviews the students about the new Speech and Debate club that Diawata is trying to start (since she can't manage to land a featured role in the school play). Her granting of each teen's wish in her final scene smacked a bit of the Wizard and his black velvet bag, but can be forgiven.

The design team of Anna Louizos (sets), Heather Dunbar (costumes), Justin Townsend (lights) and Brett Jarvis (sound & projection) have worked a bit of magic in the basement, black box space. Mr. Jarvis and Ms Louizos, in particular, deserve notice for the incorporation of each other's efforts.

Director Jason Moore has done a great job with what otherwise might be a small piece. He handles Mr. Karam's subjects of Foley-esque mayors and drama teachers, and the burgeoning sexuality of teenagers with respect and intelligence without turning the debate podium into a pulpit. This approach is consistent with his previous work ("Avenue Q"). I'll be interested to see how his next project ("Shrek") turns out with such big corporate money behind him.

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