High School Inconsequential

There’s a lot of talk in the theater community about how to bring in younger audiences, and one pretty natural way would seem to be to do plays that appeal to the young’uns by being about them. Of course, just because a play has teenage characters, like Grease or Brighton Beach Memoirs, doesn’t mean they’re going to resonate with teens.  I’m stacking the deck by using those examples because they’re period pieces, but it’s a common pitfall for plays by adults about teens to come off as nostalgia pieces or condescending, no matter when they’re set. It’s something that certainly can be done well, but more often it’s not.

Maro Guevara, Jason Frank and Jayne Deely in Speech & Debate. Photo by David Allen

Aurora Theatre Company’s season closer, Speech & Debate, is a play by a former president of a high school speech and debate club in Pennsylvania. But Stephen Karam’s 2007 off-Broadway hit, is set in Salem, Oregon, and is partly inspired by a scandal involving the mayor of Spokane getting in trouble for sex chat with teens. Like Aurora’s show before last, The First Grade, it features a classroom set, this one by Eric Sinkkonen with a sleek modern look and pop star collages on the tops of the desks.

Out gay teen Howie—or as we know him for most of the play, BlBoi—trolls for sex partners on the Internet, and the play starts with an online flirtation with an older man that he soon realizes is his high school’s drama teacher. Distaste for this unseen creepy guy who likes ’em young is what brings the three schoolmates of the play together: Solomon, an ultra-serious aspiring journalist whose school paper won’t let him write about controversial subjects like abortion or antigay Republican politicians who turn out to be gay; Diwata, a frustrated actress who never gets cast in school plays; and of course Howie, none of whom know each other until they connect through comments on Diwata’s blog.

We first see Diwata recording a podcast for her blog and singing a tediously repetitive song about the drama teacher being a “crap sandwich,” accompanied by a Casio-style keyboard and backup vocals by the boys hunched over their own laptops while watching at home. (They often sit on top of the tables as if they were their beds.) Once the three meet through Solomon’s investigations, Diwata coerces both boys into joining the speech and debate team, not above using blackmail if she has to.

In Robin Stanton’s Aurora staging, all three of the actors in teen roles seem to be playing a little younger than the characters are supposed to be. All-purpose adult Holli Hornlien is unconvincing as a faculty advisor for the school paper, but her air of artificiality works well as an ingratiating reporter who’s come to do a puff piece on the speech and debate club.

Jason Frank’s earnest demeanor as Solomon makes him seem a bit thick-headed, and a little like Michael Cera’s character on Arrested Development without a sense of humor. Frank does give a believably impenetrable performance when Solomon, reserved to a fault, is grilled about his personal life. Jayne Deely is very, very over the top as the obnoxiously hyperactive Diwata, with the smug swagger of an isolated oddball who thinks that’s how confident people carry themselves. Every time she talks it sounds like a performance, and when Diwata’s acting it comes off as if she’s making fun of actors. Maro Guevara has a snarky sort of charisma as Howie, with a perpetual smirk, limber movements, and a stooped posture just shy of Richard III. None of the three kids have any friends, and as they warm to each other they become less annoying as characters—particularly Diwata, who has the longest way to go in that respect.

Stanton’s production has some flashy elements, with projected chapter titles and montages to peppy pop songs by Katy Perry, Bon Jovi, John Mayer, and Miley Cyrus between scenes. Callie Floor’s costumes are particularly appropriate for the characters: preppy outfits for Solomon, all black and skinny jeans for Howie, and quasi-hippie gear for Diwata.

The humor of the piece is pretty hit-or-miss. There’s a running gag about googling that makes the play seem geared for an older audience that might still find the term novel and funny. But the stuff about stories that Howie and Solomon wrote for a children’s contest is priceless, especially when it comes back around later in the play in a hysterical song-and-dance number involving time-traveling teen Lincoln and Mary Warren from The Crucible.

Ultimately it’s a thin script, and after an admittedly fabulous final dance number choreographed by LiWen Ang, the ending just kind of trails off.  The play touches on some pretty heavy topics, from pedophilia to “ex-gay” ministries to teen pregnancy, but in a glancing, superficial way that comes off somewhere between an Afterschool Special and a Glee pilot that probably wouldn’t have been picked up. A story about loss of virginity is conspicuously shy on details of who the guy was or how someone with no friends whatsoever even met him.

Karam apparently wrote the play in his twenties, not too far removed from the world of the characters, but because the characters are so exaggeratedly awkward it comes off as a “man, we were dumb back then” play. I can’t help thinking that if I was young I’d find it a little off-putting, but hell, what do I know?  All I know about those damn kids is that they’d better stay off my lawn.

Speech & Debate
Through July 18
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #70 of 2010, attended June 22.

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