Fresh talent nails Speech and Debate's fearless script
By Stephen Karam. Directed by Brian Cochrane. A Twenty Something Theatre production. At Studio 1398 on Thursday, October 3. Continues until October 12
Talk about wish fulfillment. As a young actor, you could hardly ask for a better showcase than Speech and Debate. And, as an audience member, you could hardly ask for better young actors than the three fresh talents in this Twenty Something production.
Stephen Karam’s script is hilariously inventive—and fearless. In the chat-room text exchange that starts the show, an 18-year-old asks an older guy why he’s attracted to youth. The man types: “Energy. Wonder. Optimism.” The kid replies, “Tight ass?” Then he recognizes his correspondent’s email address: it’s his high-school drama teacher’s. And we’re off to the races.
The youth, Howie, has recently moved to Salem, Oregon, from Portland and he’s feeling claustrophobic in the community of “liberal puritans”. When Diwata, a disaffected theatre student, posts on her blog that she has information about the teacher, Howie sends her his phone number. And Solomon, a wannabe journalist from the school newspaper, catches the scent.
All three are struggling with the chaos of sex, and they’re soon wrestling with secrets, honesty, and social responsibility. In a genius device, Karam gives Diwata a personal project: she’s working on a musical version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Just wait for the musical exchange between one of The Crucible’s Pilgrim girls and the teenage—and homosexual—Abraham Lincoln. (The Puritan has learned to time-travel.) “If I hold it in, I’ll lose my bravery,” Lincoln sings. “If you hold it in, you’ll end slavery,” the pragmatic survivor counters.
Playing Diwata, Claire Hesselgrave is a firecracker. Performing comedy is all about commitment to weird logic and Hesselgrave is committed to Diwata’s logic like a pit bull is committed to hanging on. And Hesselgrave’s timing, her changes of direction, are so whip-fast, they feel like they could break your neck. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a thorough and charismatic comic performance. She’s amazing.
Scott Button (Howie) and Alex Rose (Solomon) are also excellent. Button has a little trouble with the singing, but his acting performance is spot-on in its mix of assurance, vulnerability, and wit. Rose brings depth and elegant deadpan humour to the play’s “straight man”.
Director Brian Cochrane cast these guys and shaped the show, so good for him.
The script goes on for several minutes after its natural ending, but what the hell. Speech and Debate is a smart circus of a good time.