Teenage Angst in Full Bloom
By Geary Danihy
Speech & Debate, which recently opened at Hartford TheaterWorks, might have been just another coming-of-age exercise filled with teenage angst complicated by homosexual yearnings were it not for a young lady named Diwata (Jee Young Han), a totally self-absorbed, conniving, manipulative tyro thespian whose monomaniacal pursuit of recognition via a role in her high school play totally energizes this one-act comedy by Stephen Karam. She is outrageous, shameless and a pure delight.

Making her professional stage debut, Han is a centrifugal force from the moment she slides forward perched atop pillows, totally absorbed in making a pod-cast that sets the play’s plot, such as it is, in motion. Her sly, venom-laced attack on the school’s drama teacher captures the on-line attention of two fellow students: Solomon (Ben Diskant), a young man with delusions of muckraking grandeur, and Howie (Carl Holder), a new arrival in Salem, Oregon, who, though he has come out of the closet, just wants to keep as low a profile as possible until he can graduate.

Solomon, as he tells a Teacher (Eva Kaminsky), wishes to write a controversial article for the high school paper on the subject of…well, whatever he can get away with: abortion, hypocritical politicians, clandestine affairs between students and teachers, anything that will allow him to vent his repressed anger and frustration. His attention captured by Diwata’s on-line innuendos about the drama teacher, he reaches out to her, as does Howie, both of whom are quickly drawn into the web that Diwata weaves in her pursuit of the lead role in Once Upon a Mattress.

Under the direction of Henry Wishcamper, who directed The Seafarer for TheaterWorks earlier this year, Holder and Diskant give quite credible performances as foils for Han’s machinations. Holder creates a young man who, though he is comfortable with his sexuality, maintains a cynical façade as a defense against whatever slings and arrows might casually come his way. Loose-limbed and given to extravagant gestures, he is the exact opposite of Diskant’s up-tight, somewhat self-righteous Solomon. The two thrust and parry as Han goads them on until, with Solomon trembling at the closet’s doorstep, she brings this sub-plot to a hilarious halt by telling them both that she’s had quite enough of this “homo-drama.” It’s time, once again, to focus on what is important – her getting a role in the play.

To accomplish this, she has cooked up a plan for the three of them to make a “Speech & Debate” presentation to school officials using material created by Solomon and a transcript of an email from Howie to the drama teacher, all to draw attention to herself. The result is a hilarious set-piece choreographed by Howie in which the three present a muddled screed on sexual hypocrisy, the Salem (Massachusetts) witch trials and the degree to which Diwata deserves a role in the play, ranting and raving in rapper fashion as Diwata, as threatened, strips down to a nude body stocking.

After this scene, the play’s denouement is a bit of a let-down, but this can be forgiven, for what has preceded Solomon’s final moments on the computer have been filled with enough laughs and perceptive put-downs to make the evening more than memorable, much to Han’s credit. Her exuberant, canny performance bodes well for the young woman’s future in the theater. If you make your way up to Hartford, in five or ten years just might be able to say, “I saw her when…”

Speech & Debate runs through Sunday, July 26. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org.

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