Stephen Karam’s newly devised play follows the lives of three kids in Oregon. These kids, who attend the same school, come together through a social suicide pact called “Speech & Debate”: an extra-curricular class with public speaking and acting. Within the four walls of the classroom, the kids achieve semi-therapeutic release from the problems of their unpopular lives, as they take tentative steps towards self-expression.
Speech & Debate is a fun collision of awkward adolescence. Solomon (Tony Revolori) is a keen reporter for his school’s newspaper, though he prefers to style himself as more of a bigshot investigative journalist, searching for shocking stories, much to the consternation of his teacher (Charlotte Lucas). In search for a juicy scoop, Solomon follows a lead to Diwata (Patsy Ferran), a hopeful actress, and Howie (Douglas Booth), a newly transferred student. Their first meeting is a kind of Mexican standoff, but it marks the start of their bizarre chemistry, since they need to stick together to each get what they want.
A sex scandal looms over the trio. It is an allegation against their drama teacher, Mr Healy: Solomon wants to expose it, but as the play progresses the situation becomes murkier, and the thing turns into a tangled web of insecurity and guilt. All three are uncomfortable with their sexualities: Diwata recounts the shame of her first time, Howie, a Grindr user, is engaged in ridiculous instant-messaging ballet in the first scene of the play, and Solomon is eager to conceal his homosexuality, revolted by his nature.
The outlet of this pressure is often social media. Diwata is a night owl: she has her own blog, with live podcasts, regaling her annoyance at losing big parts in school productions. Diwata lyrically moans about this over three chords played out by her Fischer-Price Casio keyboard (and it seems that, tragically, Solomon and Howie are the sole members of her online audience). Solomon taps away on his black MacBook, deciding to visit a gay chatroom, looking for anyone to talk to under the mask of anonymity, but his words are left hanging in the darkness of cyberspace. For all their self-styling, these kids just want to create a safe and welcoming space, since they are ultimately vulnerable, and in need of some affection.
The play often approaches some kind of meaningful exchange, some important denouement, but just as this nearly happens, one of them, usually Solomon, will make a beeline for the door. The frustration of being honest, that immaturity about telling the truth to another, means the play pivots on such moments, switching from one direction to another. This switching can make it feel like Speech & Debate is trying to deal with too much, jumping frenetically from one thing to another: questions about sex, abortion, homophobia, unpopularity, social pressures, creativity, and so on; it’s like having to slice your way through a swampy jungle of teenage misery.
Having said that, denser moments are countered by the play’s triumphant comedy. It is sometimes physical, with hilariously succulent choreography to George Michael’s “Freedom” by Howie, and sometimes blasé, with Diwata’s bizarre insistence on taking her clothes off onstage. Patsy Ferran is quite superb in this role: full of American salt and vigour, but also tender in her less guarded moments; she is the glue that keeps the three together, binding disparate elements into a stronger unit. As a debut piece, I think Speech & Debate is a promising work, and I expect exciting things in the pipeline from Stephen Karam.