Bob Goepfert Reviews “Speech & Debate” At Barrington Stage Company

Jul 23, 2017

A curse for a playwright who becomes successful is that sometimes producers seek out earlier plays to generate sales solely on a playwright’s name.  They can be embarrassments.

Fortunately this is not the case with “Speech & Debate,” a play by Stephen Karam being produced by Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass.

The play was first produced in 2007 as the first offering by the Roundabout Underground in New York City.  It is a space devoted to promising new writers.  That promise has been rewarded.  Earlier this year “The Humans” won the Tony Award for Best Play for 2016 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.  

“Speech & Debate” is more than a look at an early play of a potentially major playwright.   It is good theater that is both entertaining and thoughtful.   It deals with familiar subjects in a manner that makes them fresh and insightful.

Three misfit high school kids bond in a debate club called Speech & Debate.  One is Diwata, a flamboyant would-be actress with an obsession for the character Mary Warren in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible.”  Howie is an openly gay student and the third, Solomon, is a nerdy wanna-be investigative reporter.

Solomon is researching an expose for the high school newspaper on a male drama teacher who is soliciting students on a gay chat line.  Howie is one of the young men approached by the teacher, but since Howie is 18, it is not an illegal act.   Diwata becomes involved because the drama teacher feels she is without talent and refuses to cast her in school plays.

If you have the feeling you’ve seen this before, or know the outcome of the story you are mistaken.  The resolution is not a result of vigilante journalism or does it come from vengeful behavior.  Resolution comes from examining the problem from all sides, weighing the choices and making mature decisions.  

It also has a lot of humor.  There are times the musical skits resemble “Saturday Night Live” meets “The Breakfast Club” but even the silly moments serve a purpose as they develop character and inform the plot.  And, to be fair, the idea of three high school student stripping down to flesh colored body stockings while dancing while performing the musical version of “The Crucible” is pretty funny.

Thanks to a phenomenal performance by Betsy Hogg as Diwata and strong work by Austin Davidson and Ben Getz, “Speech & Debate” is 100-minutes of thoughtful fun.  It continues at Barrington Stage Company through July 29. For tickets and schedule information call 413-236-8888 or go to barringtonstageco.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

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