The question of “choice” sparks the brilliant undergraduate production of Stephen Karam’s “Speech and Debate,” playing this weekend at Nick Chapel. Under the sprightly direction of Michael Leibenluft ’10, the decisions the three adolescent characters face regarding the exposure of a high school drama teacher’s potential pedophilia drive the audience’s questioning of character judgment and even the definitively stated teacher sex scandal.
With the raw fluidity of the creative team’s scene transitions, which feature a mixture of chalkboard projections and “alt-folk” tunes, the play takes on the feel of a “Juno” for the stage. The combination of rough-edged characters and seamless design locks us in to the play’s difficult questions of choice and the graduation into adulthood.
Beginning with individual portraits of Karam’s clan of loveable losers with big hopes of emerging from dreaded obscurity, the openly-homosexual chatroom romancer (Cory Finley ’11), hopeless drama queen (Leah Franqui ’09) and tight-assed high-school journalist (Raphael Shapiro ’12) converge to create a speech-and-debate club founded on fresh dirt the characters have on each other.
Franqui’s portrayal of the Mary Warren-idolizing, “Wicked”-worshipping Diwata shines most when she confronts the insecure teenage girl beneath her glossy wannabe Broadway Baby persona. Her determination to blackmail the idiotic high school theater director who has foolishly overlooked Diwata’s fierce vibrato and has engaged in ambiguously questionable acts with two high school boys (Shapiro and Finley) continuously comes into conflict with her struggle to determine what is more important: stage-time or revenge. While Franqui initially presents a character in dire need of some spotlight and a reassuring pat on the back, her questioning of the moral value of “holding in” the truth drives the virtue of her performance.
The several curveballs that Karam throws the actors are deftly handled by all three, yet at times the escalation of Shapiro’s Solomon, a Catholic and closeted journalist, seems a tad forced, a slight flaw that will easily be solved once Shapiro gets used to the intimacy of a small theater. The freshman’s subtle movements, an awkward leg twitch when confronted with a personal question and reserved quips while his two counterparts exude flamboyancy, showcase his smooth comic timing and reassure the audience that occasional artificiality in forceful behavior will subside once the actor grows in the space.
Six-foot, 4-inch Cory Finley is plenty grown as the gay chatroom-frequenter Howie, aka BlBoi. His unscathed lack of giving a shit provides a satiable balance to the blatantly artificial Diwata and Solomon. Finley neatly contains what could have easily turned into a stereotype of a homosexual high schooler, with Howie’s desperate efforts to start up a Gay-Straight Alliance in a conservative high school and his tales of discovering his sexuality at age 9.
Beyond the intertwined conflicts of these three awkward high schoolers lies a neatly dressed production, comfortably sitting within the confines of the 60-something–seat Nick Chapel. Every miniscule issue the three characters face may not be wrapped up in some neat conclusion, but the refreshing ability to leave the theater with some loose ends emphasizes the importance of the oft-evaded additional character in the play, the audience.