Review: SPEECH & DEBATE at Brown Paper Box Co.

Review: SPEECH & DEBATE at Brown Paper Box Co.

Pictured: Deanalís Resto. Photo by Zach Dries.

By Aaron Lockman

SPEECH & DEBATE starts out quite promising. The set – four unadorned wooden desks and chairs – is simple, straightforward, and eerily clean in the way that only suburban American classrooms are. We are immediately catapulted into the lives of three teenagers living in Salem, Oregon, and a few short scenes establish the conflict right away: a sex scandal is simmering under the surface of the local high school. Howie (Trevor Bates), while in an online gay chatroom, is unnerved when his potential hookup sends him a disturbingly familiar email address. Diwata (played with impressive comedic chops by Deanalís Resto) spends an overlong yet entertaining scene spreading cruel, incendiary gossip about Mr. Healy, the drama teacher, on her podcast. And Solomon (Darren Patin) has a grueling conversation with his teacher (Elise Marie Davis) in which he begs to write a piece for the school newspaper, investigating the abusive men in the Salem community – particularly those socially conservative politicians who rail against gay rights and yet use their institutional power to molest teenage boys.

It’s a very intriguing setup, and the play is poised to deliver something dark, disturbing, and dangerous. From these first scenes, several fascinating themes emerge: A) the condescending repression of free speech in high schools for fear of seeming controversial, B) the struggle to reveal the truth in a community accustomed to covering it up, and C) the question of whether it’s noble to break from your ideals in the struggle to reveal the truth, or to keep it to yourself for fear of causing even more harm to the people you care about.
Here, unfortunately, is where a few problems start to arise. On the one hand, this isn’t really a play about a sex scandal, and as our characters meet each other – mostly as a result of Solomon blackmailing them into his investigation — the plot involving Mr. Healy and the accusations of pedophilia surrounding him fall by the wayside. Instead, we focus largely on the relationship between our three misfits. The play wants to be a dark and charming coming-of-age story, not a political thriller. That’s fine in theory, but flops in its execution.

Resto as Diwata creates a hilarious and compelling caricature of that obnoxious wannabe actress we all went to high school with, who shows up to all the auditions and seems blissfully unaware of her utter lack of talent. Darren Patin weaves some genuine pathos and humanity into Solomon, as the stalwart reporter whose fervor disguises a crippling fear of his own hidden trauma. And Trevor Bates as Howie is. . . a sassy gay guy? The problem lies in the fact that the script ultimately fails to lift these characters out of their encompassing stereotypes. It tries to give each of them a slowly revealed backstory, but they only reveal their backstories through minutes and minutes of solid exposition, which holds back the action and makes most of the scenes run long. The quite capable actors, then, don’t have much to work with – and so Diwata remains an obnoxious attention-hog, Solomon remains a neurotic justice seeker, and Howie remains an unapologetic jerkhole whose only character trait seems to be verbally insulting and demeaning the only two friends he has. Elise Marie Davis seems underutilized in her only two scenes – and while director David Lipschutz creates some tense, mesmerizing, and funny moments, they are undone by long pauses, some awkward stage pictures, and characters that never quite feel real.

Other flaws in the script, which might be transcended had the production opted for a slightly more absurd approach, are magnified by the more grounded and realistic take. For instance, the scheme our heroes launch – to compose and perform a piece about the scandal for a Speech and Debate tournament in order to raise awareness and shock the community – is pretty laughable. At an actual National Forensics League tournament, you’re only performing for one random teacher and a few other student competitors in a small classroom. And while I realize that the sex scandal is supposed to take a backseat to the character piece, the way in which the story’s villain gets his comeuppance seems sprinkled in as an afterthought, and is infuriatingly tame.

Despite the fair amount of clunky dialogue and rather implausible plot, however, there’s palpable talent on display in SPEECH & DEBATE. There are touching moments of real human connection, some rib-cracking jokes, and a healthy dose of nostalgia for those of us who were theater kids and speech nerds in high school.

SPEECH & DEBATE runs through March 4th. For more information visit brownpaperbox.org

About author

Aaron Lockman

Aaron Lockman is an actor and playwright recently graduated from Columbia College Chicago. You can see him in The Living Room's upcoming DaDa Solo show, and you can hear his voice in the Audible productions of Locke and Key and The X-Files, as well as on the podcast The Audio Diary of Aaron Lockman

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