Stephen Karam’s “Speech & Debate” initially flirts with a host of hot-button topics from politicians’ sexual misconduct to teachers touching students in their (to use the approved health ed terminology) “bathing suit areas.” That it devolves into a spicier variation on “The Breakfast Club” causes only a slight letdown. There have been more chilling and incisive explorations of adolescents’ growing pains and online misadventures, but the Blank Theater’s West Coast premiere is as human and entertaining as the teen angst genre gets.
Thrown together in a Salem, Ore., high school classroom not by detention but by choice, Karam’s clique of misfits plot to develop their extracurriculars. Howie (a drolly low-key Michael Welch) seeks a faculty adviser for a school gay/straight alliance while being pestered by aspiring muckraking reporter Solomon (an intense, sympathetic Aaron Himelstein) for the goods on Salem’s Internet-trolling mayor and, if rumor is right, on drama coach Mr. Healy as well.
The lonely, flamboyant Diwata, arrestingly conceived by “Arrested Development’s” Mae Whitman as the love child of Cyndi Lauper and Paul Lynde, has her own issues with Healy (he keeps sticking her in the chorus). By whipping her new pals into a forensics club, armed and dangerous with the tools of rhetoric, she’s sure she can rattle the cages of Salem’s establishment while garnering the attention she craves.
Amusingly, the guys so resistant to joining a team promptly engage in an extended debate on their obstacles and available options, mostly those dealing with homosexuality but readily relatable to teen troubles generally. Karam takes kids’ pain seriously but unpretentiously, marshalling the command of psychology and patois first seen in his exploration of America’s most notorious school shooting, “Columbinus.”
His plotting here is schematic rather than organic. But spectators will likely not notice or care about an over-reliance on coincidences and the kids’ empty threats to betray each other, so buoyantly does helmer Daniel Henning chart their progression from the mutual suspicion of outsiders to the realization that as a team, they’re inside looking out.
Henning perhaps keeps Whitman in full-throttle mode too often and for too long, especially as Himelstein’s and Welch’s superficial brashness is replaced by the heartfelt intensity of kids yearning to open up. But her role is to break the tension while shaking things up, and the actress most certainly comes through there.
Helmer should also consider applying more polish to the trio’s climactic group interpretation turn. Since Diwata would surely have rehearsed the boys to the limit, missteps and a clumsily hoisted leading lady feel like imposed gags, robbing the sequence of some of its legit pride.
But there are no missteps in the production’s look and texture. Ian P. Garrett assigns Diwata a gloriously messy enclave hovering over the institutionally dull schoolroom below. Bich Vu’s costumes couldn’t be better chosen to reveal character, both initially and in transformation.
And Henning deftly manages the few but telling incursions by the adult world, both voiceover and in the person of Dale Dickey, who impresses as a local reporter but hits a home run in one scene as Solomon’s teacher. Her very bones exude the weariness of encouraging yet placating precocious teenagers, yet she remains unbowed.