Saturday, March 20, 2010

Speech & Debate

‘SPEECH AND DEBATE’—script exceeds production at Dobama

As a former speech and debate coach at the high school and college levels, I appreciated the device that author Stephen Karam used naming the scenes of his play ‘SPEECH AND DEBATE’ after the various events of the verbal competitions (e.g., duo interpretation, impromptu speaking, Lincoln-Douglas Debate). I also identified with some of the machinations of the competitors. Yes, members of speech competitions are often outsiders, the nerds, and the more academic members of the school community, looking for validation in other things than sports. They also often go on to be life-long superstars. Some of my former competitors have pleaded cases before the Supreme Court. There are a couple of college professors, a number of doctors, the head a major NY public relations firm and a WKSU-FM newscaster

Karam’s 2006 play, which is getting its area premiere at Dobama, concerns Howie, Solomon and Diwata, three teenagers in Salem, Oregon who discover they are linked by a sex scandal that’s rocked their town and another exposé which has been kept under wraps. When one of them sets out to reveal the “truth,” secrets become currency, the stakes get higher, and the trio’s connection grows deeper in this quirky comedy with dark overtones.

A New York review of the original production termed the show a "…savvy comedy…bristling with vitality, wicked humor, terrific dialogue and a direct pipeline into the zeitgeist of contemporary youth…Karam has a keen ear for how teens talk, move and think, how they view each other and the adult world…and uses both the advantages and perils of cyberspace to make amusing, original points…" Another stated, “Stephen Karam's dark comedy seems to be about a frumpy girl, a nerdy guy and an openly gay guy who band together to disclose the truth about a teacher who preys on his male students. But that topical plot is almost window dressing. The play's real accomplishment is its picture of the borderland between late adolescence and adulthood, where grown-up ideas and ambition coexist with childish will and bravado."

Though the script contains what the Big Apple reviewers saw, the Dobama production doesn’t live up to the hype. The trio of Baldwin Wallace College actors, under the direction of Scott Plate, are adequate, but, except for Nick Pankuch, miss the mark. There is a lot of acting, rather than reacting going on. Much of what we see is characterizing, not characters.

While Pankuch, as Howie, the new “blonde” gay kid in town, who searches for hook-ups on the Internet, seems to identify with his character, Shelby Bartelstein gives us a goth video version of Diwata, the quirky drama queen. She’s not real, she’s an illusion of what Bartelstein envisions Diwata to be. Nicholas Varricchio is also not totally real. He tries too hard to think his way through how the uptight Solomon should be portrayed. If the duo had just let Karam’s lines flow and react to their meanings, the entire evening would have worked better. Plate needed to guide his actors with more care.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend, one of my favorite local actresses, also misses the mark as the teacher. She just doesn’t ring true, “feigning” not “being.”

Laura Carlson’s set design works well. The creative use of PowerPoint visuals to illuminate the title of each segment also are effective.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Many aspects of Dobama’s SPEECH AND DEBATE work, but the overall effect is not what should have been the outcome of producing Karam’s contemporary and meaningful script.