The Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theatre is presenting three plays by writers and present directors from the MFA writing program consortium of Brown University and Trinity Repertory Company. The plays will have their final performances July 27 through 29, with all three in a marathon on Saturday, July 29. (For details, see Theater listings on page 22.)
Two of the playwrights, Stephen Karam and Paul Grellong, had their works staged in the first month-long mini-festival last summer. Grellong studied playwriting while an undergraduate at Brown, where he wrote the book and lyrics for the 1997 Brownbrokers student musical, Suit Case. Karam received a nomination for this year’s Helen Hayes Award for co-writing the off-Broadway Columbinus. In addition to her several produced plays, Alice Tuan, the third playwright on the bill, is the author of a film script based on two diaries found in a New York Chinatown trash can.
Speech and Debate
Stephen Karam wrote last summer’s delightfully farcical if scattershot Girl on Girl. This year Speech and Debate demonstrates that he can coax merriment out of more orderly constructed storytelling. It doesn’t hurt that he has first-rate actors, directed by the ever reliable Lowry Marshall, to bring things to droll life.
Funny thing, though — the central subject involves adults cruising Net chat rooms for barely legal male sex partners. Risky thematic business. The inspiration was the Spokane mayor whose online solicitation is quoted in the play. His counterpart is a teacher we never meet, at North Salem High School in Oregon, where three students form a debate club. The play evolves into an examination of their private lives and the legitimacy of publicly disclosing such matters.
The engaging heart of this production is Lucy DeVito’s hilarious but unforced portrayal of Diwata, a Filipino-American social outsider who wants to be a musical star. She wins us over right away with a tipsy Web-cam blog broadcast, the stream-of-conscious chatter and patter interrupted by bursts of impromptu song. (Three automated Casio chords back her up, since Diwata can’t sing and play at the same time.)
The two other main characters are as distinctly drawn and well-
differentiated. Steven Levenson makes Solomon an irresistible force, motivated ostensibly by journalistic aspiration but actually by something more personal, as he plans to get a teacher fired for soliciting teenagers. Justin Blanchard provides openly gay fellow student Howie with a sober clearheadedness, mollifying the other two when they get too hotheaded. A novel dynamic here is that the three never consider themselves to be friends but rather are antagonists plotting together for mutual advantage. Each dangles blackmail information above one of the other’s head, making grumbling cooperation seem better than mutually assured exposure.
The speech and debate club that the three form isn’t really necessary to further the story, despite the title. The real subject here is the power of personal knowledge through betrayal or kept confidences — and the accompanying ambiguity of what we can accurately know about others. All that is dealt with more forcefully in other regards here, as when Diwata identifies with the one young character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible who knows the girls’ hysteria is a sham. Perhaps when Speech and Debate gets into final shape, it will be called Secrets and Whispers.
Power of Sail