Pity the playwright who attempts a relentlessly contemporary comedy about teenagers and fails. Nothing is quite so unbecoming as adults playing dress-up in their kids' clothes. But some grandmas can rock a tube top, and some writers can not only remind us of what it was like to be young, but tell us something about what it's like to be young now. Stephen Karam, author of Speech & Debate, now playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre, is one of the lucky few. (You don't have to take my word for it—a dozen local high-school students reviewed the show for a class I teach in critical writing. Even those who didn't like the plot thought Speech & Debate, in one student's words, "captures the high school environment extremely well.")
Howie, Solomon, and Diwata—three students at a conservative high school in Salem, Oregon—have problems. Howie (Trick Danneker), who came out when he was just 10 years old, is cruising for sex online when he runs into one of his teachers. Solomon (Justin Huertas), an aspiring reporter, is trying to out the same teacher in the high-school paper while keeping his own secrets under deep cover. Diwata (Erin Stewart) is lonely, pregnant, and frantic about never getting cast in the high-school plays. So they form a three-person speech and debate club as a front for presenting their stories to the world.
Sticking to tradition for high-school dramas (The Breakfast Club, etc.), the three grapple with difficult truths their parents and teachers can't even summon the courage to admit out loud (see this week's Theater News for a real-life example of the same thing) and bicker their way into each other's hearts. "My team, my chance to perform has taken a backseat to all your homo drama!" Diwata scowls toward the end of Speech & Debate. She's right, but she—and the audience—knows it's for the best.
A strong current runs between the three young actors: Danneker as the exasperated, sexually confident gay; Huertas as the fretful, hopeful dork; Diwata as the unalloyed basket case so many of us were before we learned to watch ourselves and swap our childhood vigor for grown-up dignity. Speech & Debate is a nervy, witty success.