I have never been a fan of high school-themed plays and movies since I find many of them to be shallow and corny, very 80s Breakfast Club (and I do find it remarkably difficult to remember my own high school life since it took place so many eons ago way before the toilet plunger was even invented…or so it seems). Yes, I am one of the, oh I don’t know, three people in Chicago, who found the House Theater’s acclaimed and multi-awarded drama The Sparrow, boring, derivative, and unbelievably mushy. So it’s sort of ironic for me to be coming out and saying that the freshest, most original, most deserving of repeated viewings and an extended engagement among all the shows currently onstage right now in the city is a play about high school students. Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate, fresh from its much-raved about and much-extended off-Broadway run at the Roundabout Theatre Underground series, is being given a fantastic, over-the-top, belly-achingly funny production at the revitalized American Theatre Company (ATC) by new Artistic Director PJ Paparelli (just to duly note, this is the first production outside of New York for the play). Everyone who loves great, insightful, witty new plays should put on their flipflops pronto and rush over to the corner of Lincoln and Byron- there’s so much more terrific, focused, memorable writing in Speech and Debate than in many of Sarah Ruhl’s recent plays (more on that in another blog post).
The brief plot description of “it’s a play about three socially awkward high school students forming a Speech and Debate club in Oregon” is not enough to provide anyone with anything close to an idea of the myriad pleasures of experiencing this play. There’s a whole big plotline about a possibly pedophilic drama teacher in the high school that the students are trying to expose. There are lots of really funny swipes at Republican politicians, ineffectual teachers, and granola-crunching liberal journalists. There are many hip, of-the moment, very well-placed references to Googling people and words, blogging, podcasts, and online chatrooms. There’s gay time travel to Biblical times, a musical version of The Crucible in which a defiant Mary Warren meets an in-the-closet adolescent Abraham Lincoln (yeah, waaay over-the-top!), and a, uhmmm, “modern” interpretative dance number performed to George Michael’s “Freedom” and which ends with the three students stripped down to flesh-colored bodysuits. But all of these would not have worked if Karam didn’t write three very well-fleshed out, fascinating, emotionally truthful characterizations: Solomon, the relentless school journalist out to well, “out”, hypocrisy and social misconduct among adults, but who is also keeping secrets of his own; Howie, the gay kid trying to find his place in his new school and community, and who has experienced the complications of searching for online hookups; and most especially, Diwata, a cross between a female, more butch, and better-pitched William Hung and a musical-theatre loving Amy Winehouse-wannabe (if that’s even in the realm of possibility!), who finds her blog and podcast are the only outlets for her hurt and anger at a world that she can’t seem to fit in (and yes, my dear Filipino blog readers, the character of Diwata is half-Filipino…”diwata” is the Tagalog word for fairy!). I love how the scenes between these three all ring true; how credibly their dilemmas, their moral choices, their bewilderment of being at that awkward middle ground between just getting-out-of-adolescence and not-yet-quite-full-adulthood have been painted; how the language that these characters use are expressive and articulate, but also highly believable. I also like how Karam subtly but powerfully makes the point at the end of the play that all the social hypocrisy and poor role-modeling that many adults are guilty of will most likely turn the next generation, our “hope for the future”, into the same social hypocrites and poor role-models too. It’s a vicious cycle.
This production of Speech and Debate contains a quartet of spectacular performances. Jared McGuire gives Solomon both awkward vulnerability and intensely persistent bravado while Patrick Andrews (who notably is a co-creator of the aforementioned The Sparrow) displays sensitivity, heartache and perfect comic timing as out-and-proud Howie. ATC ensemble member Cheryl Graeff is hilarious and memorable as the two uncaring and self-involved adult characters: the school paper’s faculty adviser who may be a closeted lesbian, and the liberal journalist who studies the formation of the Speech and Debate team for her latest book on wacky theories about adolescent psychology. But it is the magnificent Sadieh Rifai as Diwata who gives the show not only a beating, very human, heart, but also the unexpected jolts of super-adrenaline. She should win a Jeff Award for this performance, one of the best I have seen this year so far – by turns poignant, ridiculous, admirable, annoying, touching, shameless. She is riveting whether singing one crazy song after another for Diwata’s podcast, or bullying both boys during the Speech and Debate club rehearsals, or throwing crackling one-liners about being a double minority or losing her virginity with an ugly sweatshirt on. And her zinger of a delivery of the line about what she would say if she were The Crucible’s Giles Corey being buried alive, made me almost cackle my tonsils out (much to the consternation, I think, of my buddy Joel sitting beside me). This is a terrific, anchoring performance for an already superb play.
I am so excited by the new PJ Paparelli era at ATC, so much so that I am about to purchase my subscription for the upcoming season. I think that little, sleepy corner of North Center will be the place for brave, astounding, spirited plays and performances next year (just check out the season which has had me salivating for months). My dear blog readers, please go and check out Speech and Debate (and buy your tickets soon since many performances are sold out) – the ticket’s cheaper than a ticket for a Cubs game, and you know you’re guaranteed a winner of an evening.
Tags: American Theatre Company