Time was, more than 25 years ago, the outcasts in high school were neither seen nor heard. But since the Revenge of the Nerds franchise and the Freaks and Geeks TV show, not to mention numerous other spin offs, the dorks and dweebs have been getting their full measure of attention.
And they’re back at it again in Speech & Debate by Stephen Karam, now at Dobama Theatre. Given a boost by incorporating some of the current cyber-technology that obsesses adolescents these days, this play has an energetic and youthful vibe. But even with all its edgy sexuality, the piece ultimately seems too overwritten to do the characters justice.
In an attempt to update the familiar tale of picked-upon goobers in the hellish environs of high school, playwright Karam puts gay sex on the front burner. Of the three kids in the show, 18-year-old Howie is out and proud, cruising chat rooms for hookups. Meanwhile, studious Solomon is pursuing two different gay-themed stories as a reporter for the school newspaper: one involving the town’s Republican mayor who’s evidently hitting on young boys and one about a teacher in the school who has similar tastes.
The third teen, a punkish girl named Diwata, is pissed that the drama teacher Mr. Healy won’t cast her in a lead, and wails her frustration on her “monoblog,” accompanied by three repeating chords from her Casio keyboard.
There is plenty going on here, including nerd-on-nerd blackmail and their active fantasy lives—involving a gay take on Cain and Abel, a gay Abe Lincoln, and a Salem witch based on Idina Menzel who starred in Broadway’s Wicked. And God knows the kids each talk about their feelings, to themselves and each other, sometimes for far too long. But the plot contrivances—including the fact that they form an unlikely three-member speech and debate team that culminates in a ferociously wacky performance—begin to overwhelm the characters.
Also, by isolating this trio of “losers” in their own warm incubator (other students are hardly ever present), the script allows the teens to only deal with conflicts of their own making. But those missing confrontations with the “straight” kids are the ones that often cut to the heart of the agony for most young misfits.
This ambitious, often clever but flawed material is redeemed to a degree by the three talented young performers, under the direction of Scott Plate. Shelby Bartelstein is consistently amusing as Diwata, strong-arming the other two when she isn’t crooning her misery into her on-line journal. And she has the most poignant line, when she observes, “I lost my virginity with my sweatshirt on.”
As Howie, Nick Pankuch affects few gay mannerisms and seems quietly confident in his sexual identity—perhaps eerily so given his still tender age. And Nicholas Varricchio does a creditable job as Solomon, a character that has less pizzazz than the others.
The only truly odd note is struck by the lone adult in the cast, as the accomplished actor Elizabeth Ann Townsend over-torques both her roles, as a teacher and a newspaper/NPR reporter. She is so over the top, one wishes there were a school security guard with a Taser handy to bring her down about four notches.
After a stumbling conclusion, involving one or two scenes too many, Speech & Debate finally seems like a collection of really neat ideas that still needs to be honed into a tight evening of theater. But kudos to Dobama for giving it a spirited showing.
Speech & Debate
Through April 4 at Dobama Theatre,
2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Hts.,