Speech and Debate
A High School Production

By Bob and Karen Isaacs

Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam is not the most fortuitous work that Hartford TheatreWorks has chosen to present.  It is an examination of teenage angst that doesn't get much beyond the sophomoric.

It opens well enough with a challenging discussion between a male student who is the nerdy editor of his high school newspaper and the newspaper’s female teacher/adviser.  Apparently the student, Solomon (Ben Diskant) wants to write a story about abortion.  The teacher/adviser (Eva Kaminsky) attempts to dissuade him pointing out that the principal and the Board of Education are opposed to any discussion of this subject because apparently it is distasteful to the community.  Clearly this is an interesting issue to present in a play and has much potential since the teacher/adviser apparently is censoring the material in a high school newspaper.

However, this idea gets lost in a jumble of sexual prejudice as the play is enlarged with the inclusion of Howie (Carl Holder) and Diwata -- a name that becomes a running joke by its mispronunciation and apparent misspelling -- (Jee Young Han), a gay student and a chubby high school theatrical wanna-be, both of whom are out of the mainstream of the high school.

Okay so where is this going?

Well, under the direction of Diwata who wants to start a Debate Club at school,  they get together to put on a performance before the Board of Education, where each will, in his or her own way, reveal his or her talent or preference.  As it turns out, Solomon also has a homosexual bent. Each scene is label with supertitles to reflect one of the categories in formal debate competitions. But at times the relationship between the categories and what is occurring on stage seems a stretch.

Directed by Henry Wishcamper this play about a trio of high school students has the feel of nothing more than a high school production.  It may be that the play itself is little more than that and no matter what one might do with the material itself the work is sophomoric and this despite the fact that the actors handle the material and the situations well. There are also several excellent set and lighting designs by Luke Hagel-Cantarella and Matthew Richards.

Part of the problem is that while the audience may have some sympathy for the two young men – one admittedly gay and the other trying to suppress his inclinations,  Jee Young Han doesn’t make Diwata anything except irritating and bossy. You miss feeling her pain as another outsider.

There are some comic lines and exchanges that amuse the audience, particularly those who appreciate this sophomoric material.  Clearly positive audience reaction to what was presented has nothing to do with the quality of what was presented but rather the interesting issues and perhaps memories of high school unhappiness. The wild and suggestive dance by the trio at the end reminds one of a high school production of Hair, if there ever was such a thing.

Speech and Debate is at Hartford TheatreWorks, 233 Pearl St., through July 26. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838

This review appeared in Shore Publications.

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