Review: “Speech & Debate”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through June 16
Tickets: $58-$78
Phone: 312-595-5600

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I didn’t see American Theater Company’s Chicago premiere of Stephen Karam’s “Speech & Debate” in 2008, newly appointed artistic director P. J. Paparelli’s first production for the ensemble, but there seems to be little reason for remounting the “revised” 90-minute piece, except for Karam and Paparelli’s success collaborating on the far better “columbinus” and a need to fill the slot vacated by the postponement of “Hair” to the spring of 2014.  

The play, set in Salem, Ore., and divided into scenes with projected labels (sometimes ironic) of speech-and-debate categories, starts with a timely enough premise but soon loses focus. Solomon (Will Allan), a 16-year-old would-be journalist, wants to expose the sexual misconduct of the morally self-righteous high-school principal and isn’t sure how to go about it. His search for evidence leads him to Diwata (Sadieh Rifai, reprising her role), a Filipina student who’s been podcasting about the unfairness of her failure to be cast in the school musical, and Howie (William Patrick Riley), an openly gay senior who recently moved from Portland, Ore. The transcript of Howie’s chat room assignation with the principal, obtained by Diwata, may be just what Solomon needs.

But Diwata won’t cooperate unless Solomon joins her Speech and Debate Club, because she desperately needs an activity on her transcript. And since the club has to have three members to get school funding, she twists Howie’s arm, too. 

In fact, these three misfits have conflicting agendas as well as personal secrets that they don’t want made public, and the ways in which they intimidate and coerce each other to get what they want eclipses their concerns about the principal’s perfidious and hypocritical behavior. A favorite tactic of all of them is to threaten to publicize each other’s secrets, and general meanness prevails. Add defenses like Howie’s claiming that, since he’s eighteen, there’s nothing wrong with him hooking up with the principal, and the moral morass is scary.

Solomon also uses his obnoxious reporting and blackmailing techniques on a Teacher (Janet Ulrich Brooks) who tries to explain why he can’t write about certain topics for the school newspaper. And if this didn’t give journalists a bad enough name, there’s the ex-hippie Reporter (Brooks) for the “Oregonian” who laps up the lies the adolescents feed her and agrees to do favors for them to get the story.

For all the sound and fury about censorship, ethics and personal freedom, though, the story winds down to Solomon’s struggle to deal with his homosexuality. I found this disappointing and a little passé as a theme. But then, again, even the technology that dominates the way these kids connect with the world has become outdated. They use laptops, flip phones and chat rooms; nowadays, tablets, smart phones and Facebook are the rule.

Rifai, whose antics as Diwata dominate the evening, is often funny but arguably too old for the role. Allen’s Solomon is so pushy and self-serving, his conflict didn’t inspire my sympathy, but Chicago newcomer Riley gives a convincing low-key performance as Howie. Brooks, one of the city’s best actresses, is wasted in her roles, especially as the cartoonish reporter.