SKAILS Westgate and Sederquist.
Considering the dark core at the center of Speech & Debate — a sexual predator — it might seem incongruous that Steven Karam's celebrated play is hilarious. But at 2nd Story Theatre (through July 30), that dark cloud doesn't inhibit the sunshine as three intrepid high school students fight the good fight.
First staged in Lowry Marshall's 2006 summer workshop production at the Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theater, it went on to become one of the most frequently produced plays in regional theaters in 2009. The current incarnation, directed by Ed Shea, doesn't neglect the poignancy while encouraging the hilarity to tickle us out of our seats. I was surprised that my occasional glances to the aisles didn't find them littered with doubled-over audience members. It was a press night performance, bolstered by the actors' friends, but their bursting from seats with unusual promptness for a standing ovation was well-earned.
A disproportionate amount of their appreciation was for Valerie Westgate as a delightfully wacky character, Diwata. But more about that later.
Things start out with a silent conversation. On a computer monitor screen above a keyboard platform (clever set design, Trevor Elliott), Howie (Johnny Sederquist) is playing a dangerous online game, flirting with a cruising 36-year-old. The high school senior is calling himself "Blboi" to sound more attractive, and he did after all bleach his hair blonde for a while the previous summer. But the more serious misrepresentation is the other chat room participant, BiGuy, who probably is his high school drama teacher, Mr. Healy.
Next we meet Solomon (Andrew Iacovelli) animatedly arguing with a faculty advisor (Emily Lewis) about being able to write about abortion in the school paper, which she finds too controversial, as well as about local sex scandals. The one about the mayor has been widely reported, but Solomon also has suspicions about that teacher. Solomon lists examples of Republican hanky-panky, and when she asks why he's not also talking about similar Democratic scandals, he says that people expect them to behave that way.
And then there's Diwata. We see her broadcasting her nightly video blog, chugging a Corona and waxing adorable. As a public service, she also passes along the rumor accusing Mr. Healy of inappropriate behavior with boys. (The source of the rumor, as we later learn? Her.)
Diwata leads the drumbeat for a speech and debate club so she will have a venue for her opinions and dramatic creativity, besides her blog, which will also give her extracurricular points for college applications. Since Solomon is an ardent proto-journalist who can't get his exposé about Mr. Healy published, he joins because Diwata promises they can broadcast the charges on public access cable TV. Howie will join speech and debate if they will be founders with him of a school gay-straight alliance, since a minimum of three members is required.
Speech & Debate isn't so much a story about three students working to remove a bad guy from their school as it is a series of side excursions along the way. For example, one of the presentations Diwata wants to make is her musical version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, in which a plucky female Puritan tells a teenaged Abe Lincoln, who is troubled by gay leanings, that "sometimes you've got to hold it in." Understandably, the serious journalist character Solomon spends a lot of time shrieking at Diwata in appalled response to her ideas and proposals.