Speech & Debate at American Theater Company | Theater review

Stephen Karam's high-school satire sparkles again at ATC.

1/3
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

William Patrick Riley in Speech & Debate at American Theater Company

2/3
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Sadieh Rifai and William Patrick Riley in Speech & Debate at American Theater Company

3/3
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Will Allan, Sadieh Rifai and William Patrick Riley in Speech & Debate at American Theater Company

Playwright Stephen Karam co-wrote American Theater Company's last production, the chilling and cathartic columbinus (which ATC recently said it will tour to Boston in the fall). That play's weakest element is the first of its three acts, an interview-based portrait of stresses faced by the average, affluent American teenager. The composite complaints about cliques and casual bullying come off, unavoidably, as generic, with the unnamed teens boiled down to single-identifier archetypes.

All of which makes ATC's follow-up, a remount of its 2008 production of Karam's witty Speech & Debate, all the more bracing by contrast. The three teenage characters in this biting satire of young-adult sexuality are gloriously specific: There's Solomon (Will Allan), the uptight school-newspaper reporter determined to dig up adult dirt; Howie (William Patrick Riley), the openly gay senior who's just moved to Salem, Oregon, from Portland and finds his new school stifling; and Diwata (Sadieh Rifai, reprising her killer turn from ’08), a deliciously weird wannabe actress who vlogs her feelings about not getting cast in the school musical.

The skill with which Karam binds these three together—they essentially leverage their knowledge of each other's sexual secrets into a blackmail-based speech and debate team—is matched by the sharpness of his satire of their school's see-no-evil approach to sex ed: While its students are dealing with realities like pregnancy and online hookup culture, the school assembly timidly refers to not letting others near their "bathing suit area" (a phrase Diwata and Solomon mock mercilessly).

Karam's new revisions unfortunately leave Janet Ulrich Brooks less to do in two small roles as adult figures, but they strengthen the play (a plausibility-bending sequence late in the play is smartly cut) and leave the trio's performance of its outrageous Dramatic Interpretation entry—involving a metaphorical baring of the bathing suit area—as the piece's clear comic climax. Allan and Riley meet the high bar set by Rifai, and PJ Paparelli's direction is tight and economical. While Karam may demonstrate the dateable danger of referencing of-the-moment tech—the Gay.com chat-room exchange that kicks off the play's action would more likely take place on Grindr these days—there's no debating Speech & Debate is worth your attention.

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